Nat Geo’s 21 most compelling images of the 21st century

Our shared history can be told through the power of photography. Nat Geo's photo editors selected one image from each year of this century that capture the era's most important stories—from war and human tragedies to scientific breakthroughs and species saved from the brink of extinction.


A forest elephant walks along the shores of southwestern Gabon. At the turn of the century, ecologist Michael Fay embarked on a 2,000-mile trek through central Africa to survey its remaining stretches of pristine wilderness. Photographer Nick Nichols’ stirring images from the expedition helped prompt the Gabonese government to create 13 national parks in 2002.


The early 21st century was defined by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Photographer Robert Clark captured the moment a second plane crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. “The roof of my building started to fill up; people cried and hugged and stared in disbelief,” Clark later recalled. “My first clear thought was that I was watching the world change.”


In a report for National Geographic, Jodi Cobb photographed some of the 27 million people around the world who are victims of the 21st century slave trade. Most are debt laborers like this family, stacking and hauling bricks to pay off their loans to owners of a kiln in southeast India. Using high interest rates and fraudulent accounting, exploitative business owners ensure workers can never repay their debts—which are often then passed down to their children.


U.S. Marines help Iraqi people topple a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square in April 2003, a month after a U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq and overthrew Hussein’s oppressive regime. Photographer Alexandra Boulat documented the early weeks of the war for National Geographic, but the conflict wouldn’t end until the withdrawal of U.S. forces in December 2011.


A Bushman peers down into emerald waters of Botswana’s Okavango River. In a region parched by drought, seasonal floods generated by rainfall some 500 miles away in Angola are nothing short of miraculous. Photographer David Doubilet captured the region’s rich biodiversity—including buffalo, crocodiles, catfish, and diving beetles—for the magazine in 2004; in the years since, the National Geographic Society launched an initiative to protect these life-giving waters.


A thresher shark is fatally caught in a fishing net in the Gulf of California, Mexico. When Brian Skerry took this photograph in 2005, an estimated 40 million sharks were killed each year for their fins. Although shark finning has been banned in U.S. waters since 2000, the practice has grown along with the demand for shark fin soup. Today, up to 100 million sharks may be killed each year.


Speedy and agile, leopard seals are skilled at hunting prey. But with humans, they’re more curious than dangerous, as photographer Paul Nicklen discovered when a 12-foot-long female approached him in the sea of Antarctica in 2006. Dropping her catch, a penguin chick, the seal instead briefly engulfed Nicklen’s camera—and most of his head—in her mouth.


In 2007, there remained only about 720 mountain gorillas worldwide when seven were found murdered in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Virunga National Park. Brent Stirton’s photographs of the slain gorillas—a casualty of the region’s illegal charcoal trade—ignited global outrage. Today, these gorillas remain endangered by habitat loss and climate change.


Cattle rancher Simon Booth once grazed 250 head of cattle on his ranch in southeastern Australia. But when photographer Amy Toensing visited in 2008, the region was in the throes of the most devastating dry spell in its recorded history that forced many ranchers like Booth to sell their stocks. The area was an early victim of the changing climate, which had dried up rivers, wiped out crops, and pitted communities against one another in the fight for water.


Two women wait while stranded on the side of a mountain in Afghanistan. When photographer Lynsey Addario came across them, Noor Nisa (right) was in labor and on her way to the hospital in Faizabad with her mother and her husband, who had gone off in search of help when their car broke down on the four-hour drive. Addario, who has spent more than a decade shining a light on maternal mortality, ended up taking the family to the hospital.


Child brides stand with their husbands outside their mountain home in Hajjah, Yemen, in July 2010. “Whenever I saw him, I hid,” Tahani (in pink) said of the early days of her marriage to Majed, whom she married when she was 6 and he was 25. Photographer Stephanie Sinclair has covered the heartbreaking world of child marriages for more than a decade.


National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore captured this image of a three-year-old cheetah as part of his Photo Ark project, which uses the power of photography to inspire people to save species that are at risk of being lost by the turn of the next century. Since launching the project in 2005, Sartore has taken portraits of more than 10,000 of the species living in the world’s zoos and wildlife sanctuaries.


Look closer: This isn’t an ordinary male sheep crab but rather a zombie crustacean that has been invaded by a parasitic barnacle. Photographer Anand Varma has spent years capturing the world of mind-controlling parasites such as this one, which will use its powers to widen the crab’s abdomen, creating a womb for the parasite to fill with its own eggs.


In 2013, writer Paul Salopek embarked on a 21,000-mile trek across four continents to trace 60,000 years of human migration. Photographer John Stanmeyer accompanied Salopek on the first leg of his journey. Here, he captures migrant Somalis crowded on the shores of Djibouti City trying to capture inexpensive cell signals.


It was perilous to be a grizzly bear in the 20th century. Threatened by hunting and habitat loss, their numbers dwindled to as few as 600 in the 1960s. But protections under the U.S. Endangered Species Act helped turn things around. By the 2010s, there were nearly 1,000 grizzlies in the Yellowstone region alone—including this one that Charlie Hamilton James caught feeding on a bison carcass in Grand Teton National Park.


Susan Potter became an immortal corpse on the day she died in February 2015. Fifteen years earlier, Potter had agreed to donate her body to science. Photographer Lynn Johnson captured this image of Potter’s corpse encased in polyvinyl alcohol just before being frozen and cut into 27,000 slices to be resurrected as a digital cadaver that medical students will learn from for years to come.


Siblings Julie, Antonio, and India Abron collect their daily allowance of bottled water from Fire Station #3, a water resource site in Flint, Michigan. In 2016, photographer Wayne Lawrence made a series of portraits revealing how life had changed for Flint residents in the years after the 2014 contamination of the city’s water supply. The crisis led to the resignation of city and state officials whose inaction endangered residents—including an estimated 12,000 children.


Katie Stubblefield lost her face when she was 18 years old. When surgeons gave her a new one three years later in 2017, she became the 40th known face transplant in the world. National Geographic photographers Maggie Steber and Lynn Johnson followed the transplant process for an incredible story that graced the cover of the September 2018 issue.

Johnson captured this image of surgeons removing the face from organ donor Adrea Schneider. “It made one question everything we know and think about identity,” she later reflected. “It’s not just tissue. It is a human being.”


A wildlife ranger comforts Sudan, the last male northern white rhino on the planet moments before he passed away in March 2018. Photographer Ami Vitale first met Sudan in 2009 and has since been dedicated to documenting the plight of the subspecies—driven nearly to extinction by poachers who treasure the rhino’s horn. Today two females remain, and scientists are boldly attempting to revive the rhino population via in vitro fertilization.


“When we were surrounded by walruses, the hut was shaking,” wrote Evgenia Arbugaeva in the December 2019 issue. A native of the Russian Arctic, Arbugaeva returned home to capture the slower pace of life on this frozen landscape—even sharing a wooden hut for two weeks with a scientist who was studying walruses. “We were trapped inside for three of those days, she says, “careful not to set off a panic among the estimated 100,000 walruses that had hauled out around us, their movements and fighting shaking our hut.


In May, footage of George Floyd’s slow death while in police custody prompted outrage—and a reckoning—across the United States. As Black Lives Matter protesters took to the streets, many also pushed for the removal of monuments to Confederate soldiers who fought to preserve slavery. In Richmond, Virginia, photographer Kris Graves captured the scene as activists transformed a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee into a memorial to Floyd.

See 54 remarkable photographs from the unforgettable year that was 2020 in our January 2021 special issue.

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