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National Geographic’s ‘The Year in Pictures’, a First-of-its-Kind Retrospective

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Yes, 2020 was a crazy year, and National Geographic, the most respected magazine for photography, has compiled its unique glimpse of this year. The January 2021 issue, which is also The Year in Pictures for 2020, is divided into four segments: the year that tested us, the year that isolated us, the year that empowered us, and the year that hope endured.

Not all viruses lead to global pandemics. Some have evolved to our benefit. An ancient virus called HERV-K may protect human embryos from other viruses, according to Joanna Wysocka, a professor of both chemical and systems biology and of developmental biology at Stanford University. When an embryo reaches the eight-cell stage (as projected at left), HERV-K is activated and may nudge the cells to build proteins that shield them from infection. It turns off when the embryo implants in the uterus. Ancient viruses make up nearly 8 percent of human DNA, with HERV-K joining an ancestor’s genome more than 30 million years ago. Scientists like Wysocka are continuing to untangle how viruses have become a part of us. (Craig Cutler/National Geographic)

“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,” says Nat Geo editor-in-chief, Susan Goldberg. “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.”

Fifty-seven years to the day after Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, another march for civil rights and social justice drew thousands of people to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Organizers dubbed it the Commitment March: Get Your Knee Off Our Necks, a reference to George Floyd’s May 25 killing. To capture this scene, Stephen Wilkes photographed from a single fixed camera position on an elevated crane, making images at intervals throughout a 16-hour period. He then edited the best moments and blended them seamlessly into one image. (Stephen Wilkes/National Geographic)

January also becomes a single-topic issue, which is a first in the yellow-bordered magazine’s history. If you are a subscriber and don’t have the patience for the January issue to arrive, there is a digital hub that also showcases it and the best photos of the 21st century, documenting some of the most compelling images over the last decade, as well as the best of the previous three years. There is also behind-the-scenes information on how the photographers captured these precious moments.

California’s North Complex fire scorched more than 200,000 acres in just 24 hours this past September. The conflagration started as two separate fires in August during a powerful lightning storm that swept across Northern and central California. Weeks later, the fires, stoked by vicious winds, merged and exploded in size. The North Complex fire quickly destroyed much of the town of Berry Creek and killed 15 people—a grim reminder of the catastrophe that struck Paradise, California, just 40 miles to the northwest, in 2018. Cal Fire, a statewide firefighting and emergency services agency, says that fires in California and the West have grown larger, hotter, faster, and more dangerous, particularly in the past several years. There are a few reasons for this: A century of overzealous fire suppression ignored the role of natural fires in maintaining forest health. In addition, a population boom during the past half-century has seen homes and towns proliferate on the edge of wild areas. Years of drought left dead trees to fuel the fires, and climate change gave California its hottest August ever recorded. (Stuart Palley/National Geographic)

The issue chronicles the COVID-19 pandemic and devastating results inflicted in the United States, Korea, Italy, and other countries. It also captures a Michigan memorial to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died at 87 on September 18, wildfires in Northern California, locust pestilence in East Africa, and of course, protests all over.

After Italy’s shutdown was lifted, Marta Colzani and Alessio Cavallaro donned masks to be married at the Church of San Vito, an hour’s drive north of Milan. Only the family exchanged hugs at the reception. (DAVIDE BERTUCCIO/MAGNUM PHOTOS)

The Year in Pictures January issue also features notable wildlife wins of 2020science photos of 2020best animal photos of 2020amazing discoveries you may have missed in 2020best travel photosgood things that happened to the environment in 2020. The whole concept here is to provide hope for the future, although this year will not be forgotten any time soon.

A memorial in Michigan was one of many nationwide honoring Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died at 87 on September 18. Ginsburg was a feminist trailblazer long before she was nominated to the high court in 1993 by then-President Bill Clinton. She successfully worked on behalf of gender equality in a distinguished legal career. Her death led to a contentious pre-election scramble in the U.S. Senate over filling Ginsburg’s seat. Conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed on October 26 as Ginsburg’s replacement. (Andrea Bruce)

Sidenote: Have you ever wondered what a National Geographic photographer’s salary is? Here’s what Nat Geo Photographer and founder of the Photo Ark, Joel Sartore, shares on his website:

For starters, it’s not a salary.

National Geographic photographers are all independent contractors. That means that their contracts cover one story at a time. No contract, no work; no work, no paycheck.

The editorial rate in the U.S. is about $400-$500 per day. This seems like a lot until you consider that you don’t work every day and must pay for your own equipment and insurance, and cover taxes to boot. Being a freelance photojournalist is not for the faint of heart and takes financial discipline. It’s feast or famine.


About the author: Phil Mistry is a photographer and teacher based in Atlanta, GA. He started one of the first digital camera classes in New York City at The International Center of Photography in the 90s. He was the director and teacher for Sony/Popular Photography magazine’s Digital Days Workshops. You can reach him via email here.


Image credit: Photographs courtesy National Geographic

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