Photograph by Solmaz Daryani, National Geographic
Photograph by Solmaz Daryani, National Geographic

What are the best photos so far this year?

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By Whitney Johnson, Director of Visual and Immersive Experiences

The year so far seems defined into “before” and “after.” So will today’s newsletter.

Our top photos of the year so far primarly reflect the time before our landscape was defined by a deadly pandemic sweeping the globe. In Solmaz Daryani’s “before” image (above), the sunny world seems to be opening up as a woman stands before fields of wheat and potatoes in mountainous central Afghanistan.

Later in this newsletter, you’ll see smaller, more circumscribed scenes, reflecting how daily life has changed worldwide as we all seek to avoid the coronavirus.

Ismail Ferdous, among phographers we featured in last week’s newsletter, says the health terror caught him between two worlds. "I had a decision to make: Go back to Bangladesh and be with my family or stay in New York," he says. "I chose to stay. Every day at 7 p.m., New York City claps for two minutes to show gratitude for all essential workers. At these moments I’m enveloped in our collective positive energy and feel validated for staying.“

Below are four more selections from our 2020 photo picks (the whole gallery is here):

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Vitaly Napadow, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, uses electroencephalography to track the brain wave patterns of patients with chronic lower back pain. The opioid crisis has given fresh urgency to the quest to understand the biology of pain and how to treat it. Subscribers can read how scientists are unraveling the mysteries of pain.

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Calvin Knechtel, of Port Dover, Ontario, stands in front of a closed-for-the-season restaurant near the shore of Lake Erie. Because the water has been so high this year, the owners piled sandbags around the building to protect it from flooding. Just a few weeks after this photo was taken, Lake Erie broke its February high-water level, set in 1987.

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Nearly 3,300 decommissioned planes and helicopters are stored at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, where there’s little humidity to cause corrosion. Nicknamed the Boneyard, it’s the world’s largest aircraft dismantling and repurposing facility and the sole repository of out-of-service aircraft from all branches of the U.S. government.

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Ana Carla Castañeda and her younger sister Pita lounge in her bedroom in Segundo Barrio, an El Paso neighborhood. Both were born in El Paso, but their family had to relocate to Juárez, Mexico in 2012 after their father’s crossing permit was taken away because of a misunderstanding with customs officials. They were able to move back to El Paso in 2016. Subscribers can read about a cheerleading squad caught between two worlds.

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Your Instagram photo of the day

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Not a real elk: In order to catch people hunting off season, rangers at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department office in Pinedale brought a taxidermic elk into the wild and waited for someone to shoot at it. About 370,000 people on our Instagram account liked Lucas Foglia’s photo, which also prompted smart-alecky replies. “That elk coming in,” said one commenter, “like he’s asking for the manager.”

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The big takeaway

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April in Paris: “In the nearly two decades I’ve lived and worked in Paris, I’ve never seen it this quiet. It’s an eerie, empty quiet.” That’s how William Daniels begins his essay on the lockdown in the French capital at a time of year when Gershwin would praise it in music, when the lights of the City of Lights should be on. Daniels, who rarely has covered stories in his native France, finds photographing the tragedy of COVID-19 a challenge, beyond the emptiness. “In some ways,” he writes, “it’s more difficult to shoot your own place and people.” Above, police patrol the empty Plan du Trocadero.

In a few words

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Last glimpses

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The shadow knows: It’s a joyous image by Magnum photographer Jonas Bendiksen, one of many photographers turning inward as we wait out the coronavirus outbreak. From Nesoddtangeen, Norway, he says: "I’m spending my days in the nutty, charming, and emotional rollercoaster world of two- and four-year-olds. The world shrinks down and we’re in some sort of state of incredible right-here-and-nowness." Some photographers are not so lucky; the travel restrictions have kept them apart from their families.

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Home: In Kuala Lumpur, normally globe-trotting photographer Ian Teh settles in. "Family is family—it's where home is. Mine is at home with my partner," he says. "We are sitting by our favorite spot in our apartment, looking out to the nearby houses and greenery. It's peaceful."

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The future: From Athens, Magnum photographer Enri Canaj imagines the future from a home-turned-circus. "In front of the mirror is the reflection my daughter loves to see," Canaj says, "and the reflection of the society I want to see after all this is over—a colorful playground, just like the one our house has turned into." See the whole gallery of images here.

Related: These photographers capture a world paused by the coronavirus

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, and Eslah Attar selected the photographs. Have an idea or a link? We’d love to hear from you at . Thanks for reading!