By Whitney Johnson, Director of Visual and Immersive Experiences
National Geographic has long used photography to tell stories. But for the first time in our history, we have dedicated our entire January issue to a visual retrospective of the year. And what a year: a global pandemic, racial reckoning in the United States, and an election in which every vote mattered. It was a year that tested us, isolated us, empowered us—and that also gave us hope.
To winnow down 1.7 million photographs to 71, I relied on the hours and weeks of time that our photo editors have dedicated to this work. For each story, our photo editors research ideas; clear logistical hurdles; creatively solve the most challenging production problems; nurture and coach and cajole photographers; and finally narrow the selection to the images that you see here.
My colleague (and deputy director of photography) Kathy Moran doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges that photographers faced this year. The photos, she says, convey the key emotions we all went though.
“We do feel that isolation,” Kathy says, “and we do feel that hope and we feel empowered. That’s what photography gives us. It connects us in a very different way.” (Here's a video that shows how our special Year in Pictures package was produced.)
In the image above, Mary Grace Sileo and her daughter, Michelle Grant, came up with a way to hug each other for the first time in two months. They hung a clothesline and pinned a drop cloth to it in Sileo’s yard in Wantagh, New York. Then they embraced through the plastic. “In spite of everything that we’ve been facing, we still look for ways to connect,” Kathy says.
Best of the best: Fifty-seven years to the day after Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, another march drew thousands of people to Washington, D.C., to protest police brutality and racial injustice. To capture this scene, Stephen Wilkes photographed from a single fixed camera position on an elevated crane, making images over 18 hours. He then edited the best moments by segments of the day and blended them seamlessly into one image. “This is Stephen bringing his unique way of capturing time to one of the seminal moments of the summer,” Kathy says. “The beauty of it as you look through this photograph, not only do you get that sense of movement across that day but on all those different screens you see the main characters, including Rev. Al Sharptonand Martin Luther King’s granddaughter, who were critical to the day’s success.”
Ready for battle: Physician Gerald Foret dons a protective mask before seeing COVID-19 patients at Our Lady of the Angels Hospital in Bogalusa, Louisiana. Between the pandemic and the raging wildfires, safety was top of mind for everyone in 2020—including Nat Geo’s photo editors. This was a year when we were hyper-vigilant about our photographers’ safety. Rather than sending photographers across the world, many stayed closer to home to reveal how this global crisis was affecting their own communities.
Record breaking: Massive wildfires scorched millions of acres in the American West and forced hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate. Stuart Palley, a qualified wildland firefighter who has photographed more than 100 fires throughout California, covered the wildfires for National Geographic. While he’s watched fire seasons get continuously worse over the years, he notes that he’s never seen one quite like this. “It’s a fire siege,” he says.
It’s been a century: Nat Geo marked the 100th anniversary of U.S. women’s suffrage by reflecting on how modern activists are promoting civic engagement—amid what would prove to be a contentious presidential election year. Photographer Celeste Sloman made this portrait of Winter BreAnne, a California youth activist working to convince young people that voting matters. “If we aren’t voicing our opinion that way, when we have the ability and not everybody is afforded that right, we are relinquishing a lot of political power,” Winter tells us. An estimated 52 to 55 percent of eligible adults under 30 cast ballots in November, significantly up from a 42-44 percentage in 2016.
On the upside: “So much of the work that was done in the last year was in many ways looking for the COVID silver lining,” Kathy Moran says. With Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park closed to tourists, wildlife photographer Charlie Hamilton James discovered that one of the silver linings of the pandemic was having the Serengeti all to himself—aside from the occasional stampede of wildebeests racing across a dusty hillside.
After the lockdown: When a spring lockdown was lifted in Italy, postponed rituals could take place. Photographer Davide Bertuccio captured one of the country’s first post-lockdown weddings as Marta Colzani and Alessio Cavallaro donned masks inside the Church of San Vito in the town of Barzanò, near Milan. The Vatican issued a decree in March allowing bishops to use their discretion when planning religious services.
Subscriber exclusive: See more best-of-2020 photos
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Your Instagram photo of the day
Under the stars: Green sunflowers at night? Gabriele Galimberti was working a project a few months ago that allowed him to experiment with night photography—and realize a childhood dream. “I spent evenings taking pictures under the stars of Italy’s Val di Chiana, the place where I was born and raised,” Gabriele tells us. “As a kid, I was into science fiction stories, movies, and cartoons set in space.” During his recent starlight experiments, “I used colored flashes, drones equipped with lights, long exposures, recoloring these panoramas as I did as a child in my imagination.” If you look closely, you can see the Big Dipper in the sky to the left. Like this image? So have more than 540,000 people on our Instagram page.
Overheard at Nat Geo
If at first ... Photographer Anand Varma felt like a failure. Fascinated with animal life as a kid in suburban Atlanta, he had assisted other Nat Geo photographers for years, but flopped in the first few days of an assignment showing fire ants linking together to save themselves when their colony is flooded. Anand’s photos were no better than amateurs, but an editor told him to try again—and a lab tech suggested a technique to improve his work. Voila! On his third day of what was supposed to be a two-day assignment, he caught a scene that accelerated his career, he told our podcast, Overheard. In a fascinating conversation, he describes years of kneeling through dank caves and exploring the world of zombie parasites and pulsing jellyfish. (Above, an ant controlled by a mind-bending parasite.)
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The last glimpse
No two snowflakes ... From snowy Jerico, Vermont, Wilson A. Bentley spent much of his career photographing snowflakes. Frustrated with attempting to draw snowflakes, he attached a camera to his microscope and, starting in 1885, became a pioneer in photomicrography. Our senior photo archivist, Sara Manco, says that his images, snowflakes placed on lush black velvet, not only are beautiful but demonstrate that no two snowflakes are exactly alike. National Geographic featured these images in 1904 and 1923. His photos, Sara tells us, “are some of my favorite for getting into the holiday spirit."