The best unpublished photos of 2019

Discover unseen moments seen through the lens of our photographers.

Photograph by Brent Stirton
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Easter means a day of rest and celebration for the families of hardworking rangers and staff in Garamba National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The park, in the war-torn northeastern part of the DRC, attracts rebels keen to poach elephants because tusks can pay for munitions. The rangers are trained and directed by the nonprofit conservation group African Parks to protect the continent’s wildlife, and restore and run national parks.

Photograph by Brent Stirton

And the runners-up: The best unpublished photos of 2019.

What’s better than being able to choose the best photographs of the year? Getting to choose 19 more that shine a light on the year’s most important and provocative stories.

Putting together a visual story requires not just a photographer and writer, but the many editors who work behind the scenes. These various players make countless decisions along the way—from which light to capture at which second, to which photos will fit into the larger narrative of a story. So many details are considered in presenting the breadth and depth of a National Geographic feature.

But this also means that many of our favorites land on the cutting room floor.

There’s the lion slipping through sunbeams in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, a swirl of sea turtles that looks almost like abstract art, and those bare-chested men on a Pakistani beach.

Then of course there’s that rat diving headfirst into some New York City underworld of only its knowing, and with such aplomb.

So we’re seizing this moment to share the photos that still stick in our minds—and that we can’t resist sharing before the year is out. Enjoy.

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A young lioness greets the morning in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. The park’s wildlife was decimated during the country’s 1977-1992 civil war and the desperate years that followed. Now Mozambican and international conservationists are bringing the park back to life by bolstering the animal population, improving human lives by opening schools and clinics, and promoting sustainable farming in nearby communities. In 2018 there were 30 lion cubs born in the park, a key sign of revitalization.

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A caretaker at the Hanging Gardens of Marqueyssac in France feeds a resident peacock. A more notable resident is the 150-million-year-old Allosoaurus owned by French businessman Klèber Rossillon. The dinosaur’s skull, found in Wyoming, is among the best preserved in the world. The passion for paleontology among private collectors means that dinosaurs can turn up in homes and businesses almost anywhere.

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Arctic wolves strategize and surround when they come upon a herd of muskoxen, following a leader to prepare an attack. Muskoxen are one of the few prey animals that work together to form a defensive, back-to-back huddle. The wolves take positions and try to separate one of the animals, which can weigh up to 650 pounds, from the protection of the herd.

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Three Afghan men pose on Clifton Beach in Karachi, Pakistan. The city has been built on countless waves of migrants and has been called the largest refugee camp in the world. There are more than a million Afghan refugees there now. High-rises stand near slums along Clifton Beach, where untreated sewage flows into the Arabian Sea and the pollution routinely has led to health warnings. Even so, the beach remains a popular recreation spot in Karachi, and visitors can rent horses and camels for photos. Read our Cities of the Future coverage to see the published images.

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The Empress market in Karachi, Pakistan, traces its origins to the British Raj era. Today, backed up against high rises, the market offers everything from spices and condiments to fruits, textiles, and pets. Plastic goods have made an appearance too, and they contribute to a growing global waste crisis. The miracle material has made modern life possible, but more than 40 percent of it is used just once, and it’s choking our waterways. Read our Cities of the Future coverage to see the published images.

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Ramanzana, approximately five years old, plays, with one of her six brothers. She and her family of nine are internally displaced—forced to flee their home, but remaining in a settlement wihin their own country. UNICEF reports that some 40 percent of Pakistani children under five are underweight, and many live without household sanitation, especially in rural areas. Furthermore, girls such as Ramanzana are likely to receive less food than brothers and other male family members.

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John Swallow, a 73-year-old drag queen, lives today in Dade City, Florida, with his husband, Russ. Swallow remembers June 28, 1969, when New York City police raided a gay bar named the Stonewall Inn, arresting patrons who failed to wear at least three articles of clothing appropriate to their supposed gender. A standoff sparked five days of riots and helped to inspire a national LGBTQ civil rights movement.

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Green turtles (Chelonia mydas) swirl in the sea at Little Farmer’s Cay in the Bahamas. Once prized for their meat, green sea turtles are now valued more as a tourist attraction. Sea turtles have roamed the oceans for 100 million years, but human activity—namely in the form of poaching, plastic debris and other ocean pollution, and climate change—are putting the resilient reptiles at risk. “People are doing this,” says marine biologist David Robinson, speaking about the many injuries all seven species of sea turtles suffer around the world. “Everything—every aspect, every threat that they face—is anthropogenic.” The good news is that with a little protection they show their resilience. Hawaii’s green turtles, protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act, are rebounding faster than anyone expected.

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A rat dives for cover in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood in New York City. Brown rats, which make up most of the city’s rodent population, are burrowing animals that are widest at the skull, so they can slip into any space slightly wider than that (including the pipe leading to a toilet bowl). Rats thrive in big cities: The more edible trash people toss out, the more rats there will be to eat it. Researchers estimate that a litter of nine pups in a typical urban rat colony would grow to 270 pups after 30 weeks—and become a whopping 11,907 rats by year’s end.

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Pedestrians are dwarfed by the fluid folds of the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, the oil-rich capital of Azerbaijan. The airy, light-filled interior houses a museum of Azeri history, art exhibits, and various collections. Baku has followed the Dubai model of urban development: trophy buildings first, an overall plan later.

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Girls in an Afghan refugee settlement on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, study the Quran at an Islamic religious school, or madrassa. For Pakistani and Afghan families, madrassas are often the only option for girls’ education. Approximately 3.5 million children and teens receive a religious education; critics suggest that this introduces them to a radical view of Islam.

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Torrential rain sends waterfalls cascading down the walls of the Gua Nasib Bagus—Good Luck Cave—as spelunkers explore in Gunung Mulu National Park. The park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is in Malaysia’s Sarawak state on the island of Borneo. Below a rolling green carpet of rainforest, its limestone is riddled with some of the planet’s most extensive cave systems.

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Archival 70-mm film recorded the 1969 Apollo 11 mission in 1969, when humans first set foot on the moon. The film, including this iconic image of Neil Armstrong, resides today in the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. See more artifacts in Countdown to a new era in space.

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An aerial view shows gold miners at work on La Bella Durmiente, a glacier that tumbles down the flanks of Mount Ananea in the Peruvian Andes. A tangled web of hoses delivers water from the glacier to the makeshift town known as La Rinconada, where miners risk their health and sometimes their lives in the pursuit of fortune. There are no paved roads, no running water, no sewage system, and—at an altitude of over 17,000 feet—50 percent less oxygen than at sea level. To purify gold, workers heat a mercury-gold amalgam with blowtorches; the toxic mercury vapors condense in the perpetually cold air and collect on roofs and on the glacier—both sources of drinking water.

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Laurance Doyle of Principia College and the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute studies the communication systems of dolphins, which could help scientists decode patterns in alien languages. New discoveries reveal it’s almost certain we’re not alone in the universe: We now have confirmation of some 4,000 exoplanets—those outside our own solar system that circle stars like our sun. With a minimum of 100 billion stars in the Milky Way, there are at least 25 billion places where life could conceivably take hold in our galaxy alone.

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Russian circuses are famous for their dancing bears, like this one that performed for a sold-out crowd at the Bolshoi State St. Petersburg show, where tickets go for about $30 each. To make bear cubs strong enough to walk—even jump—on two legs, trainers may force them to maintain a standing position by tethering them by their necks to a wall. See the published images in The dark truth behind wildlife tourism.

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Nahomy Mendoza, a transgender woman in San Salvador, El Salvador’s capital, was beaten and gang-raped by members of the MS-13 gang, a group spawned in the United States. Gang warfare and poverty are fracturing the country; in 2017 there were 3,962 homicides reported. Gang violence, drug trafficking, and extrajudicial killings by police and military forces are key factors in the violence. See what its like walking with the migrant caravan in Central America.

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Adriana Portillo lives with her mother and brother in a one-room home in the Italia district of Apopa in San Salvador, an area known to be under the control of MS-13; Adriana’s brother is a member of the gang. Criminal gangs in El Salvador command tens of thousands of members. Many Salvadorans have fled toward to the U.S., but changes in U.S. policy could send thousands back into the chaos.