As professional photography editors, we are accustomed to seeing a little bit of everything: war, famine, fires, hurricanes, politics, suffering, beauty, silliness and sometimes joy. This year was different. Photography, and photojournalism in particular, is regarded as a medium of reality. Reality became surreal this year and with it, photojournalism. Photography shines brightest when we are moved by it or it reveals something to us that we may have never seen before. We believe this selection of extraordinary photographs from the past year radiates that light. — the Washington Post Photography Team
How we began
There was before. And then there was after. It came clear to us in different ways, at different times.
Maybe it was seeing an early report of a mysterious virus in a city called Wuhan, whose name suddenly spiked in Google searches. Maybe it was learning about the first confirmed U.S. case in late January of what would later be known as covid-19 — a momentary distraction from the Senate trial that would eventually acquit the House-impeached President Trump. Maybe it took the telltale fever and gasping cough of a relative or friend to drive it home.
Nothing would be the same.
It happened with dizzying speed. Masks. Hand sanitizer. Trips canceled. Chasing rumors of toilet paper for sale. But something much deeper was taking hold. Vulnerability became the great leveler, a rare point of shared humanity as the pandemic widened.
The frightened eyes of a patient in northern Italy looked just the same as the frightened eyes in Seattle. The emptied offices and schools in Tokyo were little different from the retreat into self-isolation in New York. In languages around the world, the cheers and thank-you posters for the newfound heroes — from medical workers to grocery clerks — rang out with similar sincerity.
Everyone everywhere watched nervously as the numbers pushed higher. Feb. 3, nearly 20,000 confirmed cases worldwide. March 7, more than 106,000. March 26, a half-million and counting.
— Brian Murphy
Filipinos watch the Taal Volcano erupt in January. Ash soared miles high, blanketing much of the Philippines and forcing thousands to seek refuge.(Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)
A koala climbs a charred eucalyptus tree as a Humane Society team tries to rescue it on Australia’s Kangaroo Island in January after fires wiped out much of the wildlife there. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
Clerk of the House of Representatives Cheryl L. Johnson leads a procession to the Senate chamber with two articles of impeachment against President Trump on Jan. 15.(Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Hours after Iran fired missiles at U.S. troops in Iraq in retaliation for a drone strike that killed the commander of its elite Quds Force in early January, it shot a Ukrainian passenger jet out of the sky, killing 176 people. Its military later blamed the tragedy on “human error.” (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)
Milan's Porta Venezia park was nearly empty in early March as the virus forced people inside and hospitals overflowed with the sick and dead. (Gianmarco Maraviglia For The Washington Post)
Border Patrol agents inspect new fencing in Arizona in early January. As of late September, the rate of construction on the president’s border wall had nearly doubled since the start of the year.
(Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
Iraqi militia members honor two victims of a Jan. 3 U.S. drone strike in Baghdad: militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, left, and Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force. (Emilienne Malfatto For The Washington Post)
Municipal workers spray disinfectant on a street in Dakar, Senegal’s capital, in early April as fear of the virus took hold and little was certain about how it spreads. (John Wessels/AFP/Getty Images)
Bodies are buried on New York’s Hart Island in April. Interments of residents whose families couldn’t be found or who could not afford private funerals quintupled in the first weeks of the pandemic. (LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS)
Ohio state Senate candidate Melissa Ackison, left, and others protest public health restrictions outside the legislature in mid-April. Ackison lost by a nearly 2-to-1 margin in her GOP primary. (Joshua A. Bickel/The Columbus Dispatch/AP)
A woman stands at her window during the coronavirus lockdown in Barcelona in late March. (Emilio Morenatti/AP)
Mourners were forced to have a drive-through memorial in April for Bishop James N. Flowers Jr., a covid-19 victim in Seat Pleasant, Md. Flowers founded a house of worship in an auto garage in 1982 and built it into the Shining Star Freewill Baptist Church with about 200 congregants. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
First responders lift a man into an ambulance in Brooklyn after moving him from a nursing home during New York's coronavirus outbreak in April. (LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS)
Seats at D.C.'s Union Station are covered in plastic on March 30. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
The Rev. Scott Holmer of the St. Edward the Confessor parish in Bowie, Md., hears confessions in the parking lot of his shuttered church in March.(Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
President Trump speaks during a coronavirus briefing at the White House on March 30. He defended his previous assertions that the virus will “go away.” (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Joe Biden campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination on Feb. 3 in Iowa, where he finished fourth before reviving his bid with a victory in South Carolina.
(Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
Employees eat six feet apart at an automotive plant on March 24 in Wuhan, China, where the novel coronavirus originated and the world saw the first example of covid-19’s devastating toll. By spring, the city had allowed car producers and auto parts suppliers to resume work with restrictions. (Getty Images)
A shopper looks over depleted supermarket shelves in Bethesda, Md., on March 16 as shutdowns across the country led Americans to stock up on staples. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Mumbai residents stay in their apartments during the city’s initial lockdown in April. India has recorded the second-most coronavirus cases after the United States, with nearly 10 million and counting. (DIVYAKANT SOLANKI/EPA-EFE/SHUTTERSTOCK)
A gondolier looks at his phone as he waits for clients in Venice on Feb. 28. The pandemic wiped out business for many during the city's Carnival season. (Francisco Seco/AP)
A Spanish soldier stands next to beds at a temporary facility for homeless people at risk from Covid-19 in Barcelona on March 25 as Spain’s death toll overtook China’s.(PAU BARRENA/AFP/Getty Images)
The coffin of a suspected covid-19 victim sits outside an apartment building in Guayaquil, Ecuador, on April 2. Hospitals were turning away patients, and bodies were being left on the streets in the city of 2.2 million. (Filiberto Faustos/AP)
Iranian volunteers prepare to disinfect a bus terminal in Tehran on March 27. (Ali Mohammadi/Bloomberg News)
Mountain goats roam the streets of Llandudno, Wales, in late March. They are occasional visitors to the seaside town in normal times, but the herd grew bolder as the streets emptied of tourists. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
How we adapted
A new lexicon for a changed world: social distancing, PPE, contact tracing, super spreaders, flattening the curve, the bubble. With each passing week, it became harder to remember when those words were strangers.
Spring rolled into summer. By now, it was painfully evident that the pandemic would not burn itself out. The warnings and appeals from public health officials took on greater urgency. Some used wartime analogies. Scenes around the world only backed that up.
The National Guard, wearing sky-blue masks and camouflage fatigues, helped bring bodies to makeshift morgues in New York. In France, military field hospitals took the overflow patients from packed covid wards. In mid-May, Anthony S. Fauci, the United States’ leading infectious-disease expert, warned against too quickly easing shutdowns and other measures. That could bring more “suffering and death,” he told lawmakers.
What once seemed temporary now did not. The reordering of life took on a long-haul feel: the shutdowns, the Zoom calls, home schooling, the sick and frail separated by glass barriers. Some places made headway, though, and offered hope. South Korea, New Zealand and other countries, with aggressive restrictions and political will, started to get a handle on cases.
Yet the 50 states, divided even on how to fight a common enemy, drifted deeper into crisis. On May 28 came a stunning tally: 100,000 covid-related deaths in the country. “A sobering development and a heart-breaking reminder of the horrible toll of this unprecedented pandemic,” said a statement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That same day, protests spread across the United States and other countries after the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who was captured on video gasping for breath as a Minneapolis police officer kept his knee on the 46-year-old’s neck. Floyd’s name instantly became part of chants for others seen as victims of injustice and police brutality: Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta and more.
Meanwhile, in Michigan on May 28, a prayer service to “heal” the nation was held outside the Capitol in Lansing. A month earlier, armed demonstrators were on the same spot in a show of force against the state’s stay-at-home orders and Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. In the crowd that day were at least six people in a group later charged by federal and state prosecutors with plotting to kidnap Whitmer.
— Brian Murphy
A family watches a movie at the Family Drive-In Theatre in Stephens City, Va., on May 1. Drive-ins — there were about 300 still operating around the country as of October — have seen a sales uptick during the pandemic. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
Musicians rehearse at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu on June 22. The opera house reopened its doors, to performers and plants at least, for its first live online broadcast. (Emilio Morenatti/AP)
Grouped together by cabin, summer campers salute as the American flag is lowered before dinner in Brevard, N.C., in June. (Jacob Biba for The Washington Post)
Mary Grace Sileo, left, hugs her daughter Michelle Grant through plastic on Memorial Day weekend in Wantagh, N.Y., the first time they had physical contact since the pandemic forced people into isolation. (Al Bello/Getty Images)
Jameila and Andre Rambana seal their marriage with a kiss on May 8 at Meridian Hill Park in Washington, one of the D.C. Superior Court’s first virtual weddings. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Three days after George Floyd’s May 25 killing in Minneapolis police custody, many areas of the city were in flames as protests turned violent at night. In June, property damage was estimated at over $500 million. (Joshua Lott for The Washington Post)
Protesters gather outside a Minneapolis police precinct on May 29.
(Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
Thousands march through downtown Minneapolis on May 31. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
New York City officers try to detain a protester during a march days after Floyd's killing. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
A woman prays at 16th Street in D.C. in June, a day before the mayor renamed part of the street near the White House Black Lives Matter Plaza. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)
On Aug. 4, a massive pile of chemicals that had sat unattended in a warehouse for six years exploded, decimating Beirut’s port and surrounding neighborhoods and leaving over 200 dead.(Lorenzo Tugnoli/Contrasto for The Washington Post)
A boy cools off in the Tigris River during Baghdad's extreme heat wave in August. The city hit a record 125.2 degrees on July 28, and temperatures topped 120 for four days in a row. (Gabriel Chaim for The Washington Post)
Students attend an open-air class in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir on July 18. (Dar Yasin/AP)
Men carry the body of a suspected covid victim on the outskirts of Lima, Peru, in May. (Rodrigo Abd/AP)
A body waits for cremation in Mexico City on June 10. At the beginning of December, the head of the World Health Organization said “Mexico is in bad shape” with the pandemic, as its official death toll rose to over 105,000, with the actual number believed to be much higher partly because of low testing levels. (ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images)
California firefighters in August try to contain a wildfire in Colusa County, outside Sacramento. The state is suffering its worst ever wildfire season, with over double the acreage burned in the previous record-breaking year. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat/AP)
Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, watch fireworks with Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) and her husband, Doug Emhoff, after Biden accepted the Democratic presidential nomination on Aug. 20 in Wilmington, Del. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
President Trump speaks on the final night of the Republican National Convention at the White House in late August.
(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump supporters crowd together for the president's rally in Tulsa on June 20, his first indoor event since coronavirus shutdowns took effect. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
A man waits alone in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, where civil rights leader John Lewis was the first Black congressman to lie in state on July 27.
(Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
In June, Somia Stewart walks through the memorial where George Floyd was killed. Minneapolis leaders want to remove barriers that have closed the intersection, but many residents are fighting to preserve the space as a reminder of ongoing calls for racial justice. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
Protesters march in D.C. on the final night of the Republican National Convention in August. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)
Taylor Blackwell jumps rope with her mom, Danielle Blackwell, and sister Jaelynn at D.C.'s Black Lives Matter Plaza in June. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)
George Floyd’s casket is carried by horse-drawn carriage to Houston Memorial Gardens in Pearland, Tex., on June 9. He grew up in Houston, and thousands attended his funeral. (Tamir Kalifa for The Washington Post)
Minneapolis police surround protesters on May 31. (Joshua Lott for The Washington Post)
Barcelona ICU workers bring a covid patient to the seaside in June, part of the recovery process for those who have been stuck in isolation during their illness. (David Ramos/Getty Images)
With a doctor watching via videoconference, nurses and respiratory specialists treat a coronavirus patient at an ICU in El Centro, Calif., on May 24. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Nurses and doctors monitor covid patients on a plane as they're transferred to a hospital in Manaus, Brazil, where the coronavirus spread up the Amazon River into remote towns and Indigenous territories. (Felipe Dana/AP)
Romelia Navarro weeps while hugging her husband, Antonio, in his final moments at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, Calif., on July 31. (Jae C. Hong/AP)
A mother holds her 6-week-old daughter in their Lake Worth, Fla., home after both were diagnosed with covid-19 in May and the family hung plastic to try to keep others safe in their small dwelling. (Cindy Karp)
How we endure
Our frailties and flaws were tested in other ways.
Monster typhoons — one in October with winds peaking at 195 mph — raked over the Philippines. The Atlantic churned up so many hurricanes and tropical storms that the names went deep into the Greek alphabet once the traditional letters were exhausted. Staggering wildfires from Colorado to California, another suspected sign of climate change, tore through wilderness and towns, leaving dozens dead and thousands displaced. In Beirut’s port, ammonium nitrate left unattended for years erupted in a fireball in August, killing over 200 and striking at the soul of a city already in economic free fall.
But the torments of 2020 showed us something else, too. Resilience rises.
Even as we crossed a once-unthinkable threshold in late September — 1 million dead globally from the pandemic — the trials for potential vaccines were showing promise. By late November, with data in hand, public health officials looked ahead to 2021 with some optimism that millions of doses from U.S. labs and elsewhere could finally help slow the death toll.
“The challenge before us right now is still immense and growing,” President-elect Joe Biden said less than a week after an election that brought a more than 65 percent turnout through a mix of votes cast by mail, dropped into ballot boxes and tallied after long waits in line. “And so is the need for bold action to fight this pandemic,” Biden continued.
The smaller battles can be just as necessary and powerful.
In Minneapolis, 78-year-old Mary Jo Copeland kept plugging away at Sharing and Caring Hands even as the charity was flooded with people needing meals or roofs over their heads in a pandemic-blasted economy. “You wouldn’t believe the power that a little kindness can have on people,” she told The Post’s Eli Saslow. In Italy, people under lockdown began to sing from their windows and balconies. That inspired others in places such as Dallas, where one apartment block joined in on Bill Withers’s classic “Lean on Me.”
Anthony S. Fauci, the top U.S. infectious-disease expert, took a tender moment to remind children they have nothing to fear from Santa. It turns out that St. Nick can’t bring the coronavirus along with his gifts, Fauci told USA Today. “Santa is exempt from this,” the doctor said, “because Santa, of all the good qualities, has a lot of good innate immunity.”
— Brian Murphy
Twenty-thousand chairs, each representing 10 Americans who died of covid-19, stand in memorial on the Ellipse outside the White House on Oct. 4. Just over two months later, the nation’s death toll is approaching 300,000.(Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
As Joe Biden speaks in Warm Springs, Ga., supporters sit within circles laid out to encourage social distancing.(Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
Trump supporters gather along Biden's motorcade route in Dallas, Pa., on Oct. 24. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
Mourners pay their respects to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg outside the Supreme Court after her death on Sept. 18. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)
President Trump and his nominee to replace Ginsburg, Amy Coney Barrett, leave a White House ceremony on Sept. 26 that was later called a coronavirus superspreader event.(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
A wildfire melted a motel sign east of Salem, Ore., in September. The Beachie Creek Fire caused the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents. (ROB SCHUMACHER/POOL/AFP/Getty Images)
Portland, Ore., police and federal agents move in on a Black Lives Matter protest in September after no officers were indicted for the Louisville police killing of Breonna Taylor. (Paula Bronstein for The Washington Post)
Migrants flee a fire at a camp for asylum seekers on the Greek island of Lesbos in September, as 11,500 people, including covid-19 patients, were displaced. The camp was built to hold 3,000.(Petros Giannakouris/AP)
Gang members are held at a jail in Quezaltepeque, El Salvador, in September. (JOSE CABEZAS/REUTERS)
Pro-democracy activists protest in a suburb of Bangkok in October, calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the ex-general who came to power in a 2014 coup. (Sakchai Lalit/AP)
On a flight from Detroit in October, the final presidential debate is broadcast for passengers.(Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
A day after November’s election, officials in Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, look for a ballot bin that was thought to have been left at a polling place. It turned up during the warehouse search.
(Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Children lie on the floor at a campaign rally for President Trump in the Greenville, N.C., airport in October.(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Nuns attend a rally in support of Trump on Nov. 1 in Washington, Mich.(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump throws hats to supporters at an airport rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Election Day.(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
President Trump speaks at an election night event in the White House with first lady Melania Trump, Vice President Pence and his wife, Karen. Citing no evidence, he called the election “a fraud on the American public” while projecting confidence that he would win. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump supporters celebrate his Florida victory in Miami's Little Havana on election night. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris celebrate in Wilmington, Del., after media outlets declared their victory on Nov. 7 based on states' vote tallies.(Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
A speech by Biden is broadcast in the White House briefing room the day media outlets called the race for him based on the vote tallies.(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
D.C. residents celebrate Biden's victory at Black Lives Matter Plaza on Nov. 7. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
A Biden supporter in Oakland, Calif., celebrates his victory on Nov. 7. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Biden and Harris speak with mayors in Wilmington on Nov. 23, the day the General Services Administration finally acknowledged their victory, allowing the presidential transition to begin in earnest. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
Mayo Clinic paramedic Adam Glass helps covid patient Rita Huebner from her walker to a chair at her home in Eau Claire, Wis., last month after she was released from a hospital for rehabilitation that the clinic can monitor remotely.
(Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Women who fled the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region pray at a church near a refugee camp in Sudan last month. The United Nations said last week that more than 47,000 people had crossed into Sudan since fighting began.(Nariman El-Mofty/AP)
Doctors care for a covid patient at an ICU in Marseille, France, last month. President Emmanuel Macron announced a second national lockdown in late October as coronavirus infections surged. (Theo Giacometti/Bloomberg News)
A previous caption identified temporary accommodations in Barcelona as a hospital. The accommodations were for homeless at risk for Covid-19.
About this story
Photo editing by MaryAnne Golon, Chloe Coleman and Dee Swann. Copy editing by Brian Malasics and Brian Cleveland. Design by Kolin Pope, Suzette Moyer, Matt Callahan, Lucio Villa, Jake Crump and Andrew Braford.