“All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

— Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Tolstoy’s words have been cited so often by now it’s a comfortable cliche. But there’s truth to cliches, and this one is no exception. It can be said to be true for at least two things we’ll take a look at here on In Sight today: Magnum Photos and their view of the world under the thumb of the pandemic, in images they’ve recently published in a new book.

We have all lived under an agonizing cloud for the past year. The proliferation of the coronavirus threw a wrench into our plans and our lives. In a lot of cases, we’ve all had to learn new ways of doing things.

The lucky among us have been able to work from home. Many haven’t been so fortunate and have had to deal with wearing masks, coronavirus tests, social distancing and people given to all kinds of inexplicable behavior. The photographers of the Magnum Photos cooperative are no different. They’ve also had to adjust, like the rest of us.

A new book, “Magnum 2020” (Magnum Photos, 2021) brings together the work of the cooperative’s photographers over the past year. As you’ll see in its pages, some of them covered the pandemic and some of them stayed home. They all pulled up their cameras to document it. For a lot of them, being constrained by the pandemic put a damper on their usual routine of constant travel. It made for a more reflective year, not just photographically.

Magnum’s current president, Olivia Arthur, writes in the foreword to the book:

“We don’t yet have enough distance from 2020 to know how the year will go down in history. Was it the end of something? The start of something else? Or merely a blip in an increasingly chaotic and fast-changing world? Something happened in 2020 that felt different from other periods of change and crises that we have experienced in our lifetimes, but then the drama is always more acute when you are living it. Let’s give it some time.”

It’s no surprise that the book is filled with exquisite images. That’s what many of us have come to expect from the cooperative and its members over the years. Of particular interest in this new collection is the work of some of the cooperative’s newest additions: Khalik Allah, Sabiha Cimen, Nanna Heitmann and Hannah Price.

The images are all gripping — from Allah’s vivid, cinematic scenes and portraits to Heitmann’s emotionally fraught images from a hospital in Moscow caught up in the throes of covid-19. The book is a stunning collective reflection on the tumult brought upon the globe during the past year and more.

Arthur also mentions something else in the foreword, which I think is worth noting:

“This year also brought up an important conversation and pushed the world to start thinking about the structures of power that have existed for generations. We were asked and we asked ourselves to examine some of the privilege that has given us opportunities in our lives and work. How should we think about that, understand it and ultimately try and change it? As a collective of artists and individuals we have responded in many different ways and we continue to think about our responsibilities as a group and as individuals in an ongoing dialogue.”

This is an important thing, indeed. One that we should all take heed of. In addition to dealing with the coronavirus in their daily lives, the past year saw Magnum’s members grappling with one of its photographers coming under fire for a pattern of abusive and wildly inappropriate behavior. The result, which probably came too late for many, was that the relationship with that photographer and the cooperative was ended.

It was the right thing to do. The world is a vastly different place now than even when I began in the photography business some 20 years ago. It seems like today’s younger generation is determined to shift paradigms. That old saying that many of us Gen X’ers and older generations used to shuffle behind, “that’s just the way things are,” is being roundly rejected by a newer generation. It’s about time.

The last year has shined a light on how power and privilege are wielded, and can work for good or be incredibly destructive and damaging. It’s brought forth a lot of anger and frustration. Magnum isn’t immune to that. None of us are.

All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, indeed.

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff members and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.

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