The year burst upon us with flag-wielding pro-Trump rioters storming the Capitol. Later came an eerily empty Olympics, soon followed by the chaos and bloodshed signaling Afghanistan’s collapse and the Taliban’s rise. The effects of climate change burned deeper into the West. And COVID-19 maintained its grip, claiming more than 5 million lives globally over two years.
We were there, in Los Angeles, across the country and around the world, camera in hand. We were there as the nation witnessed the swearing-in of its first female, first Black and first South Asian vice president. We were there as people rolled up their sleeves to get vaccines in hopes of ushering in a return to life together.
News photography is meant to be consumed instantly — on paper, on screens, in endless scrolling feeds. The urgent present quickly becomes the past. When the photos are strung together at the end of the year, though, their essence, their magic is restored. These images by Times photojournalists tell us to look again and look slowly. If we do, we realize these photographs also point to our future and celebrate our resilience.
This year, Times photo editors culled from more than 25,000 photographs in an attempt to recapture the year and visually represent the news.
This collection of images chronicles climate catastrophe, political unrest, artistic celebration and a few painterly scenes of everyday life: an affectionate couple hold their newborn child, a Holocaust survivor shares his story with readers and his own family simultaneously. But it’s also a tribute to the photographers’ voices.
This is 2021 told in pictures. Some images are graphic.
“When the jury delivered the guilty verdict convicting Derek Chauvin of murdering George Floyd, I felt the atmosphere instantly shift in Minneapolis,” photographer Jason Armond said. “Goosebumps covered my arms as I made my way through the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd at George Floyd Square. At some point, I consciously put down my camera for a brief moment to be present in the space.
“Shortly after I finished reflecting, in front of me two women spotted each other and let out a scream in celebration of the guilty verdicts. Their celebration quickly transitions into a prolonged embrace filled with deep guttural sobbing and tears of joy. At this moment, to me, it seemed as if the entire community exhaled in unison, and the heaviness gripping the city and country was collectively released.”
“It was such a surreal sight, to see troops quartered on the hard unforgiving floors of the U.S. Capitol building,” photographer Kent Nishimura said. “Perhaps the first time this sight was beheld in more than 150 years. A plaque nearby where Guardsmen were resting commemorated a time when soldiers were quartered in the building; the date: April 15, 1861. It was a quiet moment, that I saw come together as I walked up the spiral staircase of the Small House Rotunda, the lines leading my eyes to the sleeping Guardsmen. A grim, yet poignant reminder of what had happened, only a week earlier.”
“Climate change has fallen off the cliff,” photographer Luis Sinco said as the Dixie fire’s grip passed its fifth week. “Charred earth, evacuated communities and property destroyed. Smoke drifts around the globe. No end in sight.”
“Covering the Huntington Beach oil spill was very personal for me,” photographer Allen J. Schaben said. “As a photojournalist, I spend a lot of time in the ocean taking photos of wildlife, the environment, surfing, paddleboarding and scuba diving. This directly affected me, wildlife and so many people who enjoy the ocean.
“This photo was taken at a spot I surf at weekly, the Santa Ana River jetties, and it was so depressing to see oil washing ashore. The drone is a useful tool to help provide a high angle of the oil spill’s impact that is not visible to most people. Since so many people are visually oriented these days, it’s my job to come up with impactful, creative and storytelling images, and the drone offers a lot of visual options.”
“This whole story is close to my heart,” photographer Irfan Khan said. “Working in media and looking at the way that media portray Muslims — it’s filled with stigma. Doing this story, I thought about the young people who were shut out by many Americans even though they weren’t even born during 9/11. It is hard to really understand this. Only a Muslim child and a Muslim family can understand.”
“Without going into the minutiae of shuttle buses, crowded sidelines, television camera operators blocking our views of the athletes, the Tokyo Olympics was like none of the others I have covered,” photographer Robert Gauthier said. “No fans in the stands, the unseen threat of the coronavirus cast a heavy pall over the competition. But the competitive spirit of the athletes and the determination of the local staff and volunteers won out.
“Simone Biles embraced by her coach, Cecile Landi, after an intense week of fear, disappointment and scrutiny is my favorite image of the Games. Given the back story, it’s equal to 1,000 words and yet still an intimate moment. The relief on Biles’ face, the warm embrace of her coach, Landi’s face mask, the American flag. The image notwithstanding, this is one moment I’ll remember a long time.”
“Heading into my eighth Olympics, I knew things would be different,” photographer Wally Skalij said. “With the heat, never-ending bus rides between venues and the daily testing, our coverage was limited. Because of social distancing, photo positions were lacking, and on some occasions, we had to get there three hours in advance to get the best spot. Did I mention the heat?
“Panning horizontally is a common technique, so I tried to do it in a vertical manner. I only succeeded once out of over 100 frames where the face is sharp.”
“Before COVID hit, the No. 1 surgery done at this hospital was diabetic amputations. What does that tell us about this community?” photographer Francine Orr said.
“We were trying to put context to the area around the hospital. What are the medical issues that patients are dealing with beyond COVID? This community deals with racism. It’s hard hit by poverty. It’s a food desert. And if you look at the history of the area, there are people who are forced to live in this area based on their ethnicity.
“I got to see Mr. Crawford’s courage. And I’m grateful for him to allow me to look beyond what the majority of people may see from the audience. And I got to see his courage and his drive to survive for his family.”
“The photo of craft sake brewer James Jin sweating over a pile of rice captures everything I was hoping to show as I documented his story over the course of a few months,” photographer Robert Gauthier said.
“Jin often works alone late into the night, massaging steaming piles of rice in his meticulous pursuit of his own unique brand of sake. Leading up to this moment, he spent hours gathering data on another sake brew while precisely steaming five containers of rice stacked over a large gas burner. He is innovative, creative, smart and a really nice guy. The photo doesn’t communicate all that, but it’s still true.”
A few months after starting to photograph the story of two Black midwives in L.A., photographer Dania Maxwell became pregnant with her second baby. She didn’t anticipate how documenting the story would affect her as a journalist and a mother.
“I continued appointments with my obstetrician, which because of the pandemic were boiled down to the essentials,” Maxwell said. “My body and pregnancy felt like a medical condition that needed expedient treatment, not like joyful preparation for the arrival of a new life.
“As I spent more time with the birth workers and their patients, I began to question more and more where I wanted to deliver. Where would I feel safest, where would I feel most cared for? My questioning was tangled up with anxiety about COVID-19 and my emotional well-being as a pregnant woman during a pandemic.”
“I was amazed by their mental perseverance,” Ferazzi said. “Though the hikers spent all day together, at this moment, they seemed alone in their thoughts.”
“With each passing mile, the smoke from the Dixie fire got thicker and thicker as I drove up Highway 89,” photographer Mel Melcon said. “If you have ever looked out of the window of a jetliner as it graces the clouds, that’s what it felt like, except this time I was the pilot.
“Once I got out of the car, the smell of an overflowing ashtray filled my nose. This was one town I was sure of where nobody on this day was anti-mask. As I walked in, seeing structure after structure burned to the ground, the terrible reality set in. And all those once-beautiful trees are completely scorched. The only thing — it seemed to me — that was still green in Greenville was the name itself.”
“Global warming is causing havoc to our oceans,” photographer Carolyn Cole said. “Gray whales are only one of many species affected. To report on their troubles, I traveled to Baja California to see mothers and their calves at close range — an amazing experience. I returned to Los Angeles to see gray whales in the Port of L.A. trying to feed in the harbor.
“It was distressing to see so many dead whales along the Pacific Coast, from Baja to Alaska. Researchers are trying to determine the cause. I hope this story will make people more aware of the perils all whales face from global warming and the need for change.”
“Sometimes, I do feel a little guilty calling it work, in particular when an assignment involves a legend like Clint Eastwood,” photographer Jay L. Clendenin said. “Some days at work are much more enjoyable than others, and this one was pretty cool. With research, I found a spot near Eastwood’s property with this ‘tunnel’ of oak trees and knew this backdrop would look great with my large-format camera that uses 8-by-10-inch sheets of film.
“For a couple hours, I sat shotgun in his truck (the one used in his film ‘The Mule‘) making pictures all along, visiting his horses, and then eventually my tunnel of oak trees! I dragged my camera out and he was patient enough that I made five frames! I think he appreciated the energy and effort I was putting into our time together.
“The camera requires a much slower pace, beyond normal patience of sitting for a portrait, and Eastwood, the Oscar-winning director known for his one-takes on set, was as great and as willing a subject as I’ve ever made pictures with.”
For photographer Myung J. Chung, making a portrait of Kid Cudi was a “luxury” because of the artist’s patience and willingness to collaborate.
“He sat on the floor, and when the camera came up, he just turned it on for the photos,” Chung said. “I think this image worked because of its simplicity — a clean dark background, touches of color from his hair and fingernails and the dramatic lighting.”
That day, photographer and foreign correspondent Marcus Yam had tried to cover the same women’s rights protest with his colleague Nabih Bulos. They were denied, and nearly hit, but narrowly avoided detention.
“That evening I met with the Afghan journalists Nemat Naqdi, 28, a video journalist, and Taqi Daryabi, 22, a video editor, to see them released from a local hospital. I followed them back to their newsroom. They recalled a detailed account of what happened to them, and I remember thinking that this was a bad omen of things to come.
“Imagine this for a second: Having your hands tied, forced to the ground. Taliban fighters would kick, whip cables, swing rifle butts and pipes for the beatdown. Their crimes? Doing their job of keeping the Afghan public informed. Their punishment? Swift retribution for bearing witness. This is in stark contrast to the Taliban’s initial promise to uphold press freedoms.
“While they were humiliated and in custody, the Taliban mocked Nemat and Taqi: ‘Are you filming us now?’
“As they removed their clothes to display their injuries, I was struck by the horror and pain of seeing what they had sustained. They struggled to walk and grimaced in pain when they sat.”
“At the end of our time together, Diane had to pause because the heat had taken over the trailer,” said photographer Genro Molina. As her dog was barking, she pressed the cold towel hung on her neck onto her face. To me, this image shows that she, and many people, deal with this excessive heat in subtle ways — like the relationship of a fan and cold towel.”
After a Times investigation revealed that heat probably caused about 3,900 deaths in California over the previous decade, six times the state’s official tally, California could become the first state in the nation to institute a ranking system for heat waves.
“Of course, I was visually drawn to the red sweater,” photographer Al Seib said. “And I had no idea there was going to be this reaction. He knew his eyes were about to water from the test, and that’s what was comical about it. I think everybody knows and feels that feeling now. ”
“At the invitation of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and CBS, I was allowed to roam on the red carpet during arrivals, which also turned into the backstage of the 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards,” photographer Al Seib said.
“A formation of photographers captures the fashions as the honorees walk the red carpet. Still, I am in a position farther down the carpet, looking for different, intimate views of the nominees and award winners. I’m looking for those moments when the artists who, in most cases, haven’t seen one another due to the COVID pandemic celebrate with hugs and selfies.”
“Working on this project with the Stefanski family has given me some closure with my own family,” former photography intern Madeleine Hordinski said. “I was never able to ask my Polish relatives the questions I had wanted to ask while they were alive, but I was able to ask Andrew questions about his experience that will be recorded forever.
“I learned about what it might have been like for my own family to fight in the Polish Resistance, although they didn’t survive to share their own story.”
Before this photo assignment, photographer Ricardo DeAratanha had never been in a hot air balloon. “The team and I had to drive for a while to find a patch of clear sky and escape the blanket of clouds coming from the ocean,” he said. “Although it was a bit crowded in the balloon’s basket, it was beautiful to watch the other balloons catch different winds and drift around.”
“It was a great privilege to make this photograph with Ernest,” photographer Christina House said. “He was proudly showing me around the Dorothy Ramon Learning Center, a gathering hall in Banning named after his aunt that is dedicated to saving and sharing Native American cultural knowledge, and when he turned on an overhead light in the library, one spotlight highlighted his face and I asked him to stay still and took a few frames.
“There is a tenderness and strength felt in this image. Ernest represents resilience as one of the last remaining oral historians of the Indigenous Serrano language. Preserving culture is essential to honoring your ancestors. It’s something that is very important to me personally.”
“I loved, loved, loved photographing these two!” photographer Mariah Tauger said. “First impressions can be epic, and these two did not disappoint. Those coordinating outfits, amazing!! Awkwafina and Nanjiani were not only incredibly generous with their time (one hour, which is unheard of, mind you), but both were so laid back and willing to roll with just about anything I asked of them, including Voguing (which Awkwafina killed).”
When photographer Al Seib spotted Natalie Russell her son August in the back of the line, the boy was already clinging to his mom.
“When I approached, he turned away,” Seib said. “So, I winked at Natalie, came down low and started talking to August. I was trying to ease him and comfort him from the trauma of the first day of school. So many of these young kids had never been to school because of being remote, and we all know that feeling. Then he turned and was OK with me being there. Natalie quietly thanked me too.”
Photo editing by Keith Bedford, Mary Cooney and Jacob Moscovitch. Additional editing by Calvin Alagot and Rob St. John.