How 4 separate covers tell the story of a tumultuous year

The January issue features more than one cover, each highlighting the biggest stories of the year: COVID-19, climate change, conflict, and conservation. Here’s how they were selected.

More than 1.9 million images, taken by more than 300 photographers, were added to National Geographic’s archives in 2021. As editors pored through these stunning images to put together the January Year in Pictures issue, they realized one cover wouldn’t be enough. Instead, they created four covers, each reflecting the four biggest stories of the year: COVID-19, climate change, conflict, and conservation.

There was no arbitrary number of images to be picked, says Whitney Johnson, the director of visuals and immersive experiences. Rather, editors worked to curate a collection of images that tell a story.

We recently spoke with Johnson and Kathy Moran, deputy photo editor, to learn more about the challenges that went into choosing each of the four images on the cover.

COVID-19

With an ongoing pandemic spurred by low vaccination accessibility in some corners of the world and more contagious strains of the virus spreading, it was only natural to devote a portion of the January issue to stories about humans dealing with COVID-19.

Johnson says that when putting together a print issue, you’re telling a story through both words and photographs.

“Photographers are telling stories right alongside writers, or in some cases, they tell a more broad story than writers,” Johnson says. “It’s not just a collection of pretty photographs. We’re telling stories through photography.”

In this special issue, that’s something editors wanted to reflect, while helping the audience make sense of the year. And the one thing that occupied most people’s lives and minds this year was COVID-19 and the dangers it poses. 

One image really captured the extremes to which medical workers have gone to help fight the disease and to vaccinate the world over, Johnson says, and that image ended up on the cover.

In this shot from Dar Yasin, a medical worker dons personal protective equipment as he overlooks a rural community he hopes to help vaccinate. Johnson says the worker traveled over seven hours by car and by foot to reach nomadic herders in India.

The picture may seem lonely on the surface, she says, but it also inspires “a bit of hope,” quite like the hope felt when vaccines were first rolled out at the beginning of 2021. 

Another photo, included inside the issue in the COVID-19 section, shows one of the infamous mass graves in Jakarta, Indonesia, highlighting the scale of devastation the disease has brought around the world, while still showing the individual sense of grief through the pain of a single family in the foreground. This image gives a sense of the fear that mutations and a seemingly never-ending pandemic have manifested in the latter half of the year, despite that initial hope, Johnson says.

Climate change

From an increase in wildfires to flooding around the world this year, the alarm bells really went off on the need to highlight climate issues.

Photographer Lynsey Addario captured an intense image of the Caldor fire, which blazed near Lake Tahoe out in the American West. Addario is also responsible for another image in the issue of the Dixie fire that firefighters spent months trying to control.

Both images speak to fighting against all odds in the midst of an inferno, Moran says.

When thinking about the process of narrowing down which image is featured on the cover versus the inside of the magazine, Johnson says “there’s a very different shape of image” to keep in mind.

The interior image of the Dixie fire shows a lone firefighter attempting to spray down the fire, which appears to be a “futile attempt” against the apocalyptic blaze—but the photograph stands as a powerful full horizontal image. The cover image of the Caldor fire shows a different perspective: a house ablaze, which brings home the human impact and highlights the catastrophic impact of the fires on families. 

Addario kept an audio diary when on assignment in California, on which you can hear the fire burning in the background while she talks about embers falling from the sky. At the end of the day, Johnson says, photo editors know what the photographers went through to get the photos, including the tense situation Addario was in. 

Conflict

Around the world, conflict showed up in different ways, from political turmoil to its effect on communities. This cover in particular does not directly display conflict but is “instead taken from a conflict zone” in Afghanistan, Johnson says.

Photographer Kiana Hayeri captured a powerful portrait of a woman who Johnson describes as having so much “anguish on her face,” and a sense of exhaustion.

There is a level of understanding that a picture is capable of emotionally grabbing and triggering a viewer with just one glance—which leads to a deeper interest in the story behind the image, Johnson explains. 

“What matters is whether as a viewer, you feel moved by this picture,” she says.

In this particular case, the woman featured on the cover is in her 70s and a mother of four sons who are fighting on opposite sides of the conflict in Afghanistan. The conflict wedged itself in between her own family, and that emotion is reflected on her face.

Conservation

Conservation may not seem like a top story of the year to other outlets, but to National Geographic, it's always a key issue to highlight. Johnson says that the January issue covers not only typical wildlife conservation, but also goes beyond that to include cultural conservation.

Because the face of conservation is typically an animal, the adorable shot of a gray seal surfacing off the coast of New England ended up gracing the cover. Brian Skerry’s photo highlights a species that’s on the rebound after the enactment of protective legislation, providing some hope for the field of conservation. 

Johnson says it was a challenge to narrow pictures down from the 1.9 million images the team initially started with, but photo editors looked for pictures that say a lot in a single frame since “we don’t have the luxury of telling a story in 12 images.” Photo editors also made sure to account for diversity in regions of the world that are covered. The process of finding such iconic images has taken essentially the whole year.

“We’re looking for a great picture. A picture that grabs you and is well composed,” Johnson says. “To stand up on its own as a single image, it has to be a powerful picture.”

See all the photos selected for the 2021's Year in Pictures here. Read more about the photographers who contributed to this special issue here. Finally, see more of 2021’s best photography, along with the most amazing discoveries of the year and the year’s biggest environmental wins.

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