History Defining Moments of 2020
Disaster, Unrest, & Uncertainty

A nurse at Spallanzani Hospital in Rome takes off her protective clothing after visiting a patient with COVID-19. Photograph by Massimo Berruti, National Geographic Italia

While under a governor-mandated lockdown in April, residents of Sao Paulo’s Copan building, the largest residential apartment complex in Brazil, protested against President Jair Bolsonaro’s response to the pandemic at night. Bolsonaro tested positive for the coronavirus in July. Photograph by João Pina

Though early warnings about COVID-19 emphasized the risk to older people, the virus can be dangerous for the young people as well. Medical workers prepare to intubate a young man suffering from lung problems in the COVID-19 ward of Moscow’s Hospital No. 52. Photograph by Nanna Heitmann

Karla González and her mother Mirelis Toro wait in line to purchase materials for Karla’s quinceañera at a bazaar in Havana, Cuba. The country’s economy has been severely damaged by a decline in tourism and a drop in remittances sent from abroad, creating a devastating food shortage. Photograph by Eliana Aponte

A doctor’s personal protective equipment (PPE) is strewn on the ground outside a hospital in La Louviere, Belgium. The doctor stripped the PPE off to avoid contamination when entering an emergency room from an ambulance. Photograph by Cédric Gerbehaye

[via National Geographic]

Taken at the height of Belgium’s COVID-19 outbreak, a black-and-white photograph by Cédric Gerbehaye shows a medical gown and a face shield discarded outside a hospital. The protective gown – shed just moments before by a doctor transporting a patient out of an ambulance and into the ER – still carries the doctor’s form, as if the person inside it had simply vanished.

An image of quiet courage amid crisis, it’s one of 47 photographs selected by National Geographic to represent a year dominated by disaster, unrest, and uncertainty.

Wildfires and cyclonic storms ravaged homes and communities across the world. In Beirut, Lebanon, government mismanagement led to an ammonium nitrate explosion at the capital city’s port that killed nearly 200 people, wounded 6,500, and left 300,000 homeless.

 

Medical professionals at the Republican Medical Center in Stepanakert tend to a wounded combatant fighting on the Armenia side of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Photograph by Anastasia Taylor-Lind, National Geographic Society Covid-19 Emergency Fund

Reverend Robert Turner prays in front of an excavation site at Oaklawn Cemetery in Oklahoma, where scientists searching for victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre discovered a mass grave. The bodies have not yet been identified. Photograph by Bethany Mollenkof

Seventy-five years after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, these artifacts still show the intensity of the nuclear blast: a melted metal statue of Buddha and a pocketwatch frozen at 11:02 a.m., the moment the bomb struck Nagasaki. Photograph by Hiroki Kobayashi

Hurricane Laura, one of the most powerful hurricanes to hit the U.S. on record, left marsh cane and mud throughout St. Eugene Catholic Church in Grand Chenier, Louisiana. (From: How powerful hurricanes hasten the disappearance of Louisiana’s wetlands) Photograph by Kathy Anderson

The Tuskegee Confederate Monument was erected in 1906 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. After the monument was vandalized in June, it was covered with blue tarp by the city of Tuskegee, which is looking for ways to remove the monument completely. Photograph by Kris Graves

In July, a woman in Hong Kong pays her respects at a makeshift memorial for Marcus Leung, who died in 2019 protesting against China’s proposed extradition bill. Photograph by Laurel Chor

Pedestrians walk past a crumbled building in the Mar Mikhael neighborhood of Beirut, Lebanon after a warehouse containing ammonium nitrate exploded at the capital city’s port. At least 600 historic buildings with heritage status were affected by the blast, according to a UNESCO report. Photograph by Rena Effendi

Indonesia had one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in Asia. In East Jakarta, the Pondok Ranggon Public Cemetery, pictured in late April, cleared land to accommodate the influx of virus victims. Photograph by Muhammad Fadli

Millions of people rose up against police brutality and systemic racism in the U.S. after several police killings of Black people, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Monuments fell and historical wounds reemerged.

Photographer Kris Graves drove over 3,500 miles in 23 days to photograph more than 250 memorials, monuments, and schools – 90 percent of which were dedicated to the Confederacy. In Oklahoma, Bethany Mollenkof documented the unearthing of mass graves in the search for victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. “The moment felt surreal,” she says. “For so long Black people in Tulsa have demanded the city look for bodies in that spot in the graveyard, so to know they found human remains there felt heavy. I felt responsible to show the emotion.”

Unrest convulsed the rest of the world as well. Long simmering ethnic tensions between Armenian and Azerbaijani groups in Nagorno-Karabakh erupted into a 44 day conflict that ended with a tenuous ceasefire. China cracked down on Hong Kong’s student-led protests by imposing a new security law criminalizing dissent, effectively dismantling the city’s political and cultural identity. “What does it mean for a city to die?” asks photographer Laurel Chor, a Hong Kong native who has documented the city’s upheaval. “How do you mourn the loss of a place in which you are still living?”

There were also major milestones. For the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, Hiroki Kobayashi documented how Japan remembers the trauma of the atomic bombs, while Robert Clark photographed veterans and survivors in the U.S., Japan, and Europe. In August, Americans celebrated the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the constitutional right to vote.

And in November, eight of our photographers covered a presidential election whose stakes felt more urgent than ever. A record number of Americans turned out to vote for the future of a nation at a crossroads.

 

Military planes fly over Moscow’s Red Square on Victory Day to commemorate Germany’s surrender in World War II. Due to the pandemic and stay-at-home orders, the commemoration was not well attended. Photograph by Nanna Heitmann

California suffered its worst fire season on record this year. Here a firefighter walks through the Sierra National Forest, burned in the ongoing Creek Fire, which started in early September. The largest single wildfire in the state’s history, it has burned nearly 380,000 acres. Firefighters hope to contain it by the end of the year. Photograph by Stuart Palley

In Queens, New York, a community refrigerator allows people to donate or pick up food. An early epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, the borough has seen widespread unemployment and high rates of food insecurity. Photograph by Natalie Keyssar

In April, after President Uhuru Kenyatta ordered a dawn-to-dusk curfew in Kenya, the country’s highways were largely deserted, including this one in the Kitisuru neighborhood of Nairobi. Photograph by Nichole Sobecki

Left: Edith Singleton, a 45-year resident of Rochester, New York, skipped the crowds and voted early at the David F. Gantt Community Center. (From:’My vote matters’: New Yorkers explain why they made the extra effort to vote early) Right: Ben Hoffmann waited in line to vote early at the Venice Town Office in Scipio, New York. A record 100 million people cast their vote before Election Day this year. Photograph by Stephanie Mei-Ling

A long-exposure of the SpaceX’s Crew Dragon craft lifting off into orbit from Kennedy Space Center in November. The launch was a major milestone in privately-funded spaceflight. (From: SpaceX launch kicks off regular commercial flights into orbit) Photograph by Michael Seeley

Following Joe Biden’s win in the presidential election, Cooper Sherwin and Joan Taylor share a kiss while holding a framed copy of the Declaration of Independence. Sherwin and Taylor canvassed for the president-elect in Pennsylvania. Photograph by Natalie Keyssar

Through it all, the coronavirus pandemic touched every aspect of life in every corner of the globe, from how we celebrate to how we grieve. Over 1.4 million people have died. Millions have lost their jobs and struggle to feed their families. But the first doses of a vaccine are expected to be rolled out within weeks, offering hope for the new year.

These are the moments that will be etched into history, seen through the lenses of National Geographic photographers.

 

History Defining Moments of 2020
A Year Dominated by Disaster, Unrest, and Uncertainty
By Gail Fletcher / National Geographic
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