A YEAR ON THE EDGE
National Geographic Magazine India|January 2021
A DEADLY VIRUS. LIVES IN LOCKDOWN. PASSIONATE CALLS FOR JUSTICE. THE IMAGES OF 2020 CAPTURED THE HUMANITY OF A TURBULENT TIME.
SIDDHARTHA MITTER

05. 23

THROUGH IT ALL, THERE WAS LOVE BARZANÒ, ITALY

PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVIDE BERTUCCIO

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.

THE SIGHT IS CHARMING and, in all but one respect, familiar.

A young couple in their wedding finery— his sharp suit, her elegant veil—are in church, completing their marriage formalities. She stands close at his shoulder as he writes in the register. The priest looks on, his elbow on the counter, avuncular and affectionate. An ornate metal crucifix in the foreground and a wooden one on the wall behind the couple sanctify the scene. But there is something else. Bride and groom are wearing cloth face masks that match their formal attire. The priest, too, wears a mask, and a plastic visor with an attached transparent face shield.

One year ago this photograph—made by Davide Bertuccio in the town of Barzanò, Italy—would have required interpreting. As 2020 ends, however, what it depicts is instantly clear. The scene is an entry in a new rubric, the COVID wedding. It exemplifies the awkward adjustments that people have been learning, to simply keep going in pandemic times.

No single image can encapsulate the disruption of a year in which a highly contagious respiratory illness galloped across the planet, shut borders, shrank economies, and upended daily life. But in these newlyweds—obeying new sanitary protocols as they celebrate their union in Lombardy, a region that the virus hit hard—we recognize the urge, and the need, to find the normal in abnormal times.

05.21 BRINGING DIGNITY TO THE DEAD

QUEENS, NY

PHOTOGRAPH BY

PETER VAN AGTMAEL

MAGNUM PHOTOS

Francisco James, resident funeral director at Leo F. Kearns Funeral Home, checks some of the bodies held in a refrigerated container. In an eight-week surge of COVID-19 deaths in New York last spring, the funeral home served 350 families; typically it handles about 75 deaths during a two-month period.

NOBODY REALLY THINKS OF US ON THE FRONT LINES. YOU HEAR ABOUT FIREFIGHTERS, DOCTORS, BUT YOU NEVER SEE ‘THANK YOU, FUNERAL DIRECTORS.’ WE’RE THE LAST OF THE FIRST RESPONDERS.” —FRANCISCO JAMES

It was a relentless year. It felt as if eras were ending. Beyond the human toll—the deaths, the lingering effects on survivors, the stress on hospitals and caregivers—the economic fallout was acute. In wealthy countries, joblessness climbed. In poorer countries, existing deprivations worsened. Border closures, the near cessation of travel, and supply chains in disarray seemed to end the notion that globalization was reversible. In the United States the virus flourished, aided by a dysfunctional response. It was fueled by deep social and economic divisions and intense political acrimony. The end seemed at hand for the “American century” as the world’s preeminent power drifted from its alliances and commitments. The world could not take its eyes off the United States. Amid the pandemic, yet another egregious police killing of a Black American, George Floyd, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, forced a tipping point. Led by the Black Lives Matter movement, protests swelled through the summer, often meeting a harsh response from police, and sometimes from self-appointed militias and vigilantes.

U.S. history seemed at stake as never before. Connecting past to present, protesters also trained their ire on statues and memorials that celebrate America’s history of violence in figures such as Christopher Columbus and, most of all, symbols of the Confederacy.

Many monuments came down. Others became gathering points, improvised laboratories of civic imagination—notably the statue of Confederate general Robert e. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, as seen in Kris Graves’s photo (page 44).

Every event seemed to intensify the national madness: devastating wildfires on the West Coast, the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the coronavirus infection of the president. The planet watched the calamity, mesmerized. For many it felt at once alarming and exhausting, a kind of collective out-of-body experience.

As daily coronavirus infection rates reached new highs in November, the U.S. election bred contested results and institutional calamity. The most dire fears of a disrupted election did not materialize, but the narrow vote margins and lengthy counts in several states frustrated an impatient public. The results reflected a country deeply divided and prey to social antagonism and conspiracy theories.

How did photography capture such a year? The first task was to compile the record. The advent of digital culture has confirmed photojournalism as the most immediate, impactful tool for documenting our times. The industry already was growing, as more accessible tools to make and show photographs invited fresh talent from new perspectives. It was building in insight, as women, LGBTQ, Black, and Indigenous photographers and their allies forced reflection on history, trauma, and dignity. And it was exploding within reach, thanks to smartphones, fast internet connections, and digital platforms—particularly Instagram—that swelled the torrent of images at wide disposal, tending toward saturation. In this respect, photojournalism was ready.

But the task was more complicated than just documenting. In 2020 the need for images sharpened as the physical horizon narrowed. The lockdowns, social-distancing rules, and fear of infection combined to transform, in ways still taking form, the terms of social interaction. Much of life moved to the screen, with everything from business meetings to art shows morphing into digital formats. In a time of sudden isolation, image streams that already were overwhelming and addictive became lifelines. “Doomscrolling,” the habit of endlessly perusing media feeds to see the latest horrors, was morbid, perhaps, but essential for some to stay informed and connected.

To make and share images under these circumstances called for more than professional competence. It called for care. Self-care, first of all, by the photographers compelled to chronicle historic events even as journalists, like everyone else, were restricted in movement— and who risked contagion when they did move about. It called for ethical care for the photographers’ subjects. It called for the understanding—arguably long overdue— that no one is safe, everyone is anxious, and yet, like the newlyweds of Barzanò, we are all trying to find a way forward.

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