A Picture and its Story 2020: Part one
Updated 30 Nov 2020
From the coronavirus pandemic to the anti-racism protests following the death of George Floyd, Reuters photographers were on the ground covering the most important stories of the year.
Reuters photographers reacted quickly to capture images from a car driver ramming into and then shooting at protesters in Seattle to a woman mourning the death of her husband during gang wars and police operations in Rio de Janeiro.
Beyond the striking pictures, these are the stories of the women and men behind the lens and their experiences in the line of duty.
"I never push my luck to the limit," said Danish Siddiqui, who photographed a mob as they beat up a Muslim man during communal riots in New Delhi. "I always keep a buffer which helps me walk out with the pictures which tell the story."
From dramatic images from rural Australia where the air was thick with smoke during the worst bushfires in recorded history, to intensive care units in Italy and Texas where doctors in full protective suits worked valiantly to save lives, the photographers overcame logistical and technical obstacles.
Below is a selection of some exceptional Reuters pictures taken in 2020 along with the stories behind the shots, directly from the photographers who took them.
Andrew Kelly: Undertakers Alisha Narvaez and Nicole Warring carry the body of a deceased person to the basement of the funeral home where they both work, in Harlem, New York City.
"In April 2020, the coronavirus was ravaging the Big Apple. With nearly all stores closed and streets empty of traffic and people, it felt as if the entire landscape of the city had changed. A lot of the public focus was on the frontline hospital workers, who were struggling to keep up with the high numbers of COVID-19 cases.
I got to thinking about where the dead were taken after the hospitals and decided to go to the nearest funeral home I could find. As I entered, I met Alisha and Nicole in the office. Initially, I was a little surprised. They did not look like what I imagined funeral directors would. Young, cool and stylishly-dressed, they greeted me warmly.
They told me they were inundated with the deceased and had a basement full of them as well as a full schedule of funerals. They were sometimes working 17-hour days to meet the increased demand.
As they carried the body into the basement, I was not prepared for what I saw. Bodies took up almost every available space. Some shared gurneys, some were in body bags on the floor, and many were stacked to the ceiling in cremation boxes along a side wall. Before this, I had barely seen a dead person. Now, I had close to fifty before me in this small room. Even through my mask, the smell was overwhelming. This is when the enormity of the coronavirus pandemic hit me.
When I arrived home a few hours after initially meeting Alisha and Nicole, my wife immediately asked me if I was ok. My face was still as white as a sheet."
Nancy Allen and Brian Allen stand outside their home as high winds push smoke and ash from the Currowan Fire towards Nowra, New South Wales, Australia.
Tracey Nearmy: “Covering Australia’s sparsely populated regions is difficult. And when the bushfires started this summer, getting there was tricky. After a day of travelling, I found myself in smoky red haze face-to-face with Nancy Allen in Nowra, New South Wales.
Nancy and her husband Brian, dressed in a singlet and shorts, were trying to defend their home with a garden hose. The fire bearing down on their town was so intense, it was creating its own pyrocumulonimbus storm, and the police had evacuated the area hours earlier.
Yet, Nancy and Brian stayed in the swirling smoke and ash, anxiously wetting down the front of their house. Mistaking me for an emergency crew, Nancy rushed over to ask me what they should do. Given that the suburb had already been evacuated, I told them to follow the advice to go to the closest evacuation centre. Their home was close to dense bushland, so it was worrying to see them still on their property an hour later.
Nancy’s expression in this photograph summed up the shock and disbelief many Australians felt at the ferocity and enormity of these fires.”
Foreign prisoners, suspected of being part of the Islamic State, lie in a prison cell in Hasaka, Syria.
Goran Tomasevic: "I went to northeastern Syria to shoot prisons and detention camps holding thousands of men, women and children whose lives are in limbo nearly a year after the final defeat of Islamic State to which they once belonged.
The area around Qamishli city is mainly controlled by Kurdish fighters who helped defeat the Islamist militant group.
This prison held foreign fighters, and in this one cell, there were more than 50 men lying head-to-toe across the floor of one cell, leaving virtually no room to move. Natural light was minimal and the air was heavy with the smell of sweat and dirt.
What to do with the remnants of Islamic State, whose fighters tortured and executed thousands of people during its zenith from 2014, is a thorny issue for countries whose citizens went to fight with the group. The foreign fighters I interacted with wanted to be repatriated to their countries of origin, rather to be prosecuted there."
Samburu men attempt to fend-off a swarm of desert locusts flying over a grazing land in Lemasulani village, Samburu County, Kenya.
Monicah Mwangi: "Desert locusts have been recorded in the Horn of Africa since biblical times, but this year, unusual weather patterns exacerbated by climate change created the perfect circumstances for swarms to descend in northern Kenya.
The entire grazing field where they had gathered in Samburu County was covered in yellow as the insects munched on grass meant for livestock.
‘The locusts are in millions, they will finish all the vegetation, and then what will our animals feed on?’ said one local trying to fend off the swarms by shouting and beating on empty containers.
Being in the middle of the swarm of locusts was scary, as some would hit the camera with full force and die. I had to keep on wiping my camera lens, and my movement in the cloud was limited. If I had tried to talk, I would be eating flying locusts raw.
I wanted to juxtapose the colourful modern clothes of the Samburu men using an old technique to try and disperse the swarm with the buzzing yellow locusts destroying the future by eating the grazing grass. Soon after I took this picture, a plane spraying pesticide flew over the swarm and they disappeared on their migratory path."
A member of Mexico's National Guard detains a migrant, part of a caravan travelling to the U.S., near the border between Guatemala and Mexico, in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico.
Jose Torres: "As I was covering a migrant caravan, thousands tried to cross the border from Tecun Uman in Guatemala to Mexico through military and police lines. This man came out of nowhere. He ran with fellow migrants, shouting words of encouragement, exhorting them to stand their ground and not give in to the police line standing on the Mexican side. It took three policemen to detain him.
As the police tackled him to the ground, I went down as well to capture the moment, as he struggled and shouted “Freedom.” In the end, he surrendered. The look in his eyes changed as he realized his journey was over.
Since 2018, covering the caravans has become very challenging, both physically and mentally. There is a constant chance of the migrants clashing with the police, and the stories of the people travelling are always touching."
A leukaemia patient and her mother coming from Hubei province cross a checkpoint at the Jiujiang Yangtze River Bridge in Jiujiang, Jiangxi province, China.
Thomas Peter: "The clock was running out on farmer Lu Yuejin, desperate to get her 26-year-old daughter Hu Ping to chemotherapy for her leukaemia. But Hubei was under coronavirus lockdown and she struggled to pass a checkpoint to get to the hospital in the neighbouring province.
‘She needs to have her treatment. But they won’t let us through,’ she said when we met her at the police cordon, her daughter wrapped in a duvet to protect her compromised immune system against the outside world.
In February, the coronavirus had not yet become a global scourge, but for people in China, the epidemic was already a new reality. The authorities had closed off the city of Wuhan, where the virus was first discovered, and put the surrounding Hubei province under a virtual lockdown. Checkpoints had sprung up along its borders to prevent residents from leaving. People were scarred. Many stayed home and only ducked out to get food.
Clad in full PPE, we travelled along the edge of the exclusion zone to report on how life was changing. Navigating the police and local government officials was the hardest part of our reporting as our presence was often not welcome.
We found Lu Yuejin crying and pleading with the police. At one point she dropped to the ground, wailing. About an hour after she spoke with us, an ambulance arrived that took them to the hospital.
I felt relieved to see them go. Their long road of cancer treatment had come to a brutal end at this checkpoint – they could not go back across the bridge where hospitals were filling up with virus patients. Lu’s tears and Hu’s resigned posture made this clear.
That morning they eventually got lucky, but this incident made me think of all the other untold tragedies during this pandemic, which has turned routine journeys into an obstacle course. For some, overcoming those hurdles is a question of life or death."
A group of men chanting pro-Hindu slogans, beat Mohammad Zubair, 37, who is Muslim, during protests sparked by a new citizenship law in New Delhi, India.
Danish Siddiqui: “It had been a winter of protests in India, with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets against a new citizenship law that many felt discriminated against the country's Muslim minority. In February, competing protests between those against the law and its supporters turned into communal riots with violent clashes.
A source called me to tell me that trouble had broken out at one of the protest sites. Within a few minutes of arriving on the scene, it became clear this was a more dangerous situation, with heavy stone-pelting, and throwing of Molotov cocktails and bottles of acid.
Shadowing lines of heavily outnumbered police, I noticed more than a dozen people ranging from teenagers to old men assaulting a Muslim man in white clothes. Using sticks, cricket stumps, plastic pipes and metal rods, they brutally beat the man. Blood flowed from his head as he went down on his knees. The attack was over in less than a minute, as Muslims on the other side of the road started throwing stones. The man, whom I later came to know as Mohammad Zubair, lay on the road alone as stones, bricks and Molotov cocktails flew over him. Zubair suffered serious injuries all over his body as well as internally but was lucky to survive and is still recovering.
‘They saw I was alone, they saw my cap, beard, shalwar kameez (traditional outfit) and saw me as a Muslim,’ Zubair said to me when I met him a couple of days later. ‘They just started attacking, shouting slogans. What kind of humanity is this?’”
Multiple members of medical staff in protective suits move an 18-year-old COVID-19 patient in an intensive care unit at the San Raffaele hospital in Milan, Italy.
Flavio Lo Scalzo: "Italy was the first country in Europe to be hit by the coronavirus and within weeks, hospitals in the north were already swamped and struggling to cope with the sick. The San Raffaele hospital in Milan was built in just eight days inside a large tent in order to cope with the high numbers of patients in desperate need of intensive care.
In those early days, it was widely believed that COVID-19 only affected the elderly or those with a pre-existing medical condition, but in this case a team of 10 people were working hard to treat an 18-year-old. In this image he was being transferred to another unit for an urgent CAT scan.
That moment was very complex: a single mistake could have caused his death. I was very careful to stay back and not get in anyone’s way. The sad, unexpected presence of this youth here, who till then had been in perfect health, and the tension during his treatment was reflected in my photos.
Months later, I learned the young patient had been transferred to another hospital, where he received a lung transplant. Now a long rehabilitation period awaits him."
The body of Valnir Mendes da Silva, 62, lies on a sidewalk of Arara community in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Ricardo Moraes: "Valnir Mendes da Silva, 62, was a lonely man. Before dying on the streets of Arara slum, he was living alone, his partner having passed away months before. After his death, I found Seu Valnir’s body on a sidewalk, covered by a blanket.
It was early morning and I was in the area covering a police operation against drug dealers, when we heard about the dead body. Residents showed us the location, near where some were preparing to play a soccer match. The contrast of the covered corpse and the football player taking a shot gave an acute insight into the coronavirus outbreak in Brazil.
I took the picture in the morning and spent the day trying to confirm how Seu Valnir had died. The people I spoke to in the neighbourhood had diverging opinions about the chance of his death being related to COVID-19. They told me he had been dead on the ground since the previous evening, and his stepson had spent hours trying to be allowed to remove his body.
Cardiorespiratory arrest was stated as the cause of death on Seu Valnir’s death certificate provided by the paramedics, and he hadn’t been tested for COVID-19. But residents had called the ambulance when they saw that he couldn’t breathe, and this was an important fact.
About 30 hours after being declared dead, workers from a funeral parlour, in full protective suits, removed Seu Valnir’s body from the sidewalk, while children played nearby. The slum residents applauded the end of the drama.
Under normal circumstances, leaving a body on a sidewalk for so long would be considered cruel. During a pandemic, it was unbelievable. After the removal, the residents discussed how to disinfect the sidewalk. The next day, Seu Valnir was buried by his ex-wife, her son and two friends."
Belarusian shepherd Alexey Usikov, 33, drives a horse-drawn carriage in the village of Knyazhytsy, Belarus.
Vasily Fedosenko: "Cowherd Alexey Usikov often has to brave inclement weather while tending to his herd at a collective farm in eastern Belarus. On a neighbour’s suggestion, he decided to convert his old Audi 80 into an ‘all-weather’ cart by connecting half of it to a horse-drawn shaft.
The result? A rough-and-ready home on wheels that protects Usikov from the rain. His ‘Audi-40’, as he jokingly calls the improvised half of the original car, is equipped with a battery, headlights, radio, and even a tiny potbelly stove that provides warmth and on which he makes coffee.
Usikov has welded the cart’s body where necessary, repainted it, and lubricates and pumps the wheels. "It gives you pleasure to ride a well-maintained cart," he said.
I wanted one photo that would show the inimitable self-made horse-drawn carriage against the backdrop of Usikov’s village.
Such a moment presented itself at the end of his shift, when he handed over cow-tending duties to his brother and went home. A steep hill allowed for a top-down shot capturing the two horses pulling the unusual vehicle past an ordinary village house."
Protesters on horseback rally against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, through downtown Houston, Texas, U.S,.
Adrees Latif: "A week after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, tens of thousands of demonstrators poured into Floyd's hometown of Houston for an emotional and peaceful march to honor his life and protest police brutality.
Driving into the city center, I saw thousands of Houstonians walking for miles to take part in the event. Many held signs and wore clothes bearing the image of George Floyd.
As I raced towards the start of the march, I heard the distinctive sound of horses coming in my direction. With each trot along the brick-paved street, their approach echoed off the skyscrapers.
A man wearing a red bandana with the words "Rap-A-Lot Records" took the lead in the procession, blocked the intersection and raised his fist in the air. Others followed in solidarity and before long, I was in the midst of a cavalry of Black Americans on horseback.
With my senses overcome by the sounds, smells and splendour of the horses amid the towering buildings, I moved to compose and capture the moment before it was over. As quickly as the group appeared, the words ‘Justice for George Floyd’ and ‘Black Lives Matter,’ could be heard as the equestrians rode off into the distance."
A man carrying a gun exits a vehicle as Daniel Gregory is tended to by medics after being shot in the arm by a driver who tried to drive through a protest against racial inequality, in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, in Seattle, Washington, U.S,.
Lindsey Wasson: "I had just stepped to the main window of the local newspaper office, and I was looking over the crowd during a Sunday evening protest against police brutality and racism – one of several that had rocked Seattle and other places across the United States since the death of George Floyd – when I heard a scream and commotion. I rushed to the window to photograph what was happening.
Stunned protesters surrounded a car that had driven into their ranks. A man brandishing a gun exited the driver’s side of the vehicle and the protesters backed away from him as he ran off and melted into the crowd. Medics rushed forward to help a wounded man lying on the ground nearby. Everything happened very quickly, maybe only a minute or so.
It has been very odd to see protests like this in my hometown. What feels different this time is the scale and how sustained it's been. I've never seen it go on for this long, with this extended energy and purpose."
For part two of A Picture and its Story 2020 click here
PHOTO EDITING GABRIELLE FONSECA JOHNSON; WRITING KARISHMA SINGH; TEXT EDITING JANET LAWRENCE; LAYOUT JULIA DALRYMPLE