Many superlatives can be applied to 2020, most of them negative. “Worst year ever,” I’ve heard people say—a subjective judgment we each would make differently. But it was unquestionably a harrowing year, marked by COVID-19’s tragic death toll, the hurtful racial strife, and the divisive political environment.
In this special issue, “The Year in Pictures,” we’ve documented 2020 through the work of some of the world’s most gifted photographers. In our 133 years, National Geographic has never singled out one year for a retrospective like this. But if ever a year demanded that, 2020 does.
In some respects, making this issue was not hard. We added more than 1.7 million images to the National Geographic archive last year—likely fewer than usual because the pandemic complicated travel assignments, but still a wealth of material. The challenge was narrowing that to fewer than 60 images that most powerfully capture this astonishing year.
As we chose photos, the underlying themes of 2020 began to emerge. The year tested us in more ways than we can list, from the still growing body count of the pandemic to disasters around the globe: hurricanes, wildfires, locusts. It isolated us from one another: Schools and offices closed, and we were behind masks, socially distanced even from our own families. Yet it was a year that also empowered us, as the death of a man named George Floyd at the hands of police sparked an urgent, diverse movement for social justice.
When you look through the images of 2020, you can find hope too, if you care to see it—if not for this moment, then for a brighter future. I see it in the glowing horizon in a photo of a storm sweeping across Lake Michigan, by Keith Ladzinski. I see it in Davide Bertuccio’s photograph of a couple getting married in Italy, the veiled bride behind a white lace mask.
We won’t miss 2020. We won’t forget it. And together, we greet 2021.