The best photographs of 2020 – and the stories behind them

Dust and rain storm at Parkes, NSW, Australia
Jason Davies/Severe Weather Australia

19 January Dust storms are a pretty common occurrence in Central New South Wales but a colleague said to me: “You might want to come and look at this one.” He was right. It looked far more apocalyptic than usual – so I quickly got my drone up to take some shots. This image captures the gravity of the storm and makes it look really dramatic; I was in the right place at the right time. It went viral in Australia but I still love showing it to people for the first time. You see their jaws drop because it looks so surreal – a lot of people think it’s a scene from a movie! AM

Locust swarms plague Kenya
Kurokawa Dai/EPA

24 January These huge swarms of desert locusts caused devastation across East Africa and the Middle East. We had a Kenyan reporter from Kitui County as part of our team who was able to locate affected farmers, including the young man in this picture.

As you can see, the locusts were pink, which wasn’t what I expected. The ones that came from Yemen and Somalia were yellow, but then they died and were replaced by a new generation – young locusts are pink during their first week of life.

You can take pictures of locusts in the sky, but I wanted to capture the magnitude of the swarm, which meant getting people in the shot. The farmers were desperately trying to chase away the insects – they tried many techniques, including banging pots and pans to create as much noise as possible. This farmer was chasing the locusts around with a machete. There were hundreds of them landing on his face and flying under his shirt. He was trying really hard to chase them away, but it didn’t really work and, sadly, his crops were badly damaged. AM

Elephants eating on a rubbish dump in Oluvil, Sri Lanka
Tharmaplan Tilaxan/Cover Images

22 February One evening, I saw a herd of wild elephants foraging for food in a garbage mound close to the forest bordering the Oluvil-Palakkad area of Sri Lanka. I was aggravated by the sight of the elephants living this way and I wanted to draw attention to their plight by capturing these images. The conditions I was shooting in were tough. Breathing was difficult because of the stench, and I began to develop a skin condition due to spending so much time in the garbage dump. While awareness of elephants eating plastic that has been dumped near their habitat is growing, many Sri Lankans remain unaware, or simply think it’s the government’s responsibility. My hope is that as awareness spreads, a positive change is bound to follow. AM

Harry and Meghan arrive at the Endeavour Fund awards
Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

5 March By the time this photo was taken, the rumour that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex were departing for Hollywood had been around for a while, so I was hoping to get a picture with a bit of Hollywood glamour. There’s always a bit of luck involved with shooting royals or celebrities because there’s only so much control you have over the environment. For instance, a member of their security team could step in and block the shot and then there’s nothing you can do to move them. People have commented on how magical this photo looks and I think that’s down to the way the rain interacts with the flash to create a dramatic silhouette of the couple. They did indeed leave the UK shortly after, so it was really satisfying to get this shot before they went. AM

Goats run wild in deserted Llandudno, Wales
Chris Furlong/Getty Images

31 March The story broke on Twitter that goats were taking over Llandudno town centre and I went there to try to get some fun pictures. It was like a weird good-news story: animals reinheriting the Earth in the chaos of that early lockdown period. At the time, I was mainly just documenting the emptiness, taking photos of empty streets, empty beaches, empty parks. Getting to photograph those ebullient goats definitely made for a few smiles and a nice break from the monotony of those bleak days. It was really just a case of keeping my distance and letting the goats do their thing. AM

Yasmine Protho graduates in Cusseta, Georgia
Brynn Anderson/AP

15 May Yasmine and her family all walked in with the image of her on their masks – they’d had them made specially, it was really sweet. Because of Covid restrictions, only 10 students and their families were allowed to be present. The school set up a stage on the football field and all the graduating students had to keep 6ft apart. The stands were completely empty so it was very quiet. When I spoke to Yasmine she said she was excited to graduate, but she also seemed kind of sombre. She looked very beautiful; she’d had her lashes done and I think she wanted people to see who she was with the image on her mask. This was early in the pandemic and there wasn’t as much information as we have now, so I didn’t know what to expect, but it was a very interesting and eerie graduation. LH

BLM protester in Atlanta, Georgia
Lynsey Weatherspoon

29 May Being there to document the BLM protests was extremely important to me as a black woman in America. I’ve always gravitated to images that reflect my own identity, and the fact that this image conveys the power of black women in our society is a great source of pride. That was my first time taking photos of a protest and I didn’t know what to expect, but it was really powerful to witness and document. Complete strangers were looking out for each other and I think the emotional significance of that was heightened by the pandemic.

When I took the photo I thought it was a cool shot, but it was only when I posted it to Instagram that I realised how powerful the image could be. Da’nai [the woman in the photo] looks like a spiritual figure; I feel like you learn so many things about her, the BLM movement and America when you look at this picture. AM

Protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis
Philip Montgomery

30 May When George Floyd died, it struck me that this community mourning the loss of one of their own was an important moment and I needed to get up to Minneapolis.

This photograph was taken in front of the fifth police precinct. The night before, demonstrators had set fire to a number of structures across the street from the police station. The presence of law enforcement was non-existent and, in a lot of ways the police had lost control of the city. However, they would occasionally charge out of the station in full force, in an attempt to clear the area of demonstrators. I remember taking pictures outside the station when there was this wall of teargas and these Hollywood stormtroopers emerged from the smoke. I had covered similar situations in Ferguson and Baltimore, but the police in Minneapolis were taking a real gloves-off approach. For me this photo really speaks to how militarised the police force has become. AM

Patrick Hutchinson rescues BLM counter-protester
Dylan Martinez/Reuters

14 June This picture was taken at the third or fourth major UK BLM demo in the space of a month. The counter-protesters had advertised that they were going to be around Westminster protecting statues and in the back of my mind I was looking for an opportunity to juxtapose the two sides in one frame.

I saw one of the counter–protesters – since identified as Bryn Male – go to the ground and I immediately thought he was in serious danger. Through the fray, I saw another man, Patrick Hutchinson, a BLM protester, dive in and whip him up on to his back before running towards me. It wasn’t just Male – I saw Patrick and his team protecting another three or four people moments later.

Most pictures that resonate with people are heart-wrenching: there’s something about them that draws you in, but they’re never particularly easy to look at. To get two stories together in a positive image like this is quite rare. The stars aligned for me that day. AM

Marcus Rashford support in Wythenshawe
Molly Darlington/Reuters

16 June I saw this sign on social media one evening and I immediately went out to get the shot. I live about 20 minutes away but I knew I couldn’t wait around, because if someone took it down then it would be gone for ever. Once it was taken down, the National Football Museum in Manchester put out a call online for the sign and someone posted it to them anonymously. Marcus Rashford’s campaign was obviously a big story and this picture represents the community of Manchester’s support for him. AM

A couple draws guns on protesters in St Louis, Missouri
Lawrence Bryant/Reuters

29 June People were protesting against the city mayor Lyda Krewson – they wanted her to resign [for revealing the names and addresses of people who called for police reform]. They were marching towards her house when I saw these two people – one on the porch and one on the lawn – pointing guns at the protesters and shouting: “Get out!” I was nervous; I didn’t know their intentions – the woman was angrily shaking the gun and her finger was on the trigger. It felt surreal, to have a person that is angered by you pointing a gun at you, and you don’t even know why. It was mind-boggling.

Plenty of photos just showed the couple, but I really wanted to show who they were pointing the guns at. You can go all the way back in history and you can always see a white person pointing a gun at black people. It’s like nothing has changed. LH

Young football fan celebrates Liverpool’s Premier League victory
Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

22 July The Champions League celebrations in 2019 were bonkers – 750,000 people lined the streets – but we knew the [Premier League] title celebrations would be different because of Covid. Even though it was during the summer, when many of the lockdown restrictions had been lifted, we had no idea how many people would turn up – but there were thousands of jubilant supporters outside the stadium. I’ve covered Glastonbury a few times and it was a similar atmosphere. What I love about this picture is the raw human emotion. It’s just this little kid celebrating one of the goals [Liverpool beat Chelsea 5-3] and he’s totally oblivious to me and the camera. When someone’s lost in the moment like that, it’s hard to go too far wrong. AM

A naked sunbather chases a wild boar, Teufelssee lake, Berlin
Adele Landauer/AFP/Getty Images

5 August I was swimming at the Teufelssee lake when I saw a boar with her babies eating a discarded pizza. Boars are common here, but my granddaughter lives in LA and I thought she had probably never seen one, so I took out my phone to photograph them. I had the camera ready when I saw the boar grab a yellow bag in her mouth, and then a naked man chasing her – you are allowed to be nude in this area. He was yelling: “Argh, in this bag is my computer!” and clapping his hands in the hope the boar would let it go. I’m a life coach and I thought it was a good example of someone staying focused and doing whatever it takes to achieve their goal. Everyone around was cheering him on, and he was successful in getting the bag back. With his permission I posted the picture online – I expected to get my usual 30 likes, but my daughter called an hour later and said it had gone viral! LH

Wildfire and Covid in California
Noah Berger/AP

19 August I’ve been photographing fires since 2013, but this year has been mind-blowing in terms of the scope of land enveloped in flames and the scale of the devastation. Over one million acres [400,000 hectares] were badly damaged and thousands of people were forced to leave their homes.

I spent four or five days out in the field, sleeping in my car, which allowed me to stay immersed in the world I was trying to capture. At this particular fire in Napa County, I spent about an hour and a half with an 84-year-old man and his son who were defending their home. I was looking to photograph something that would signal the location, but this sign gave me an opportunity to combine two major events into one image. In this photo, I see the downward spiral of 2020: you’re worried about this horrible thing and something even worse comes along. AM

Lone protester at anti-government demonstrations, Bangkok
Jorge Silva/Reuters

16 October There had been pro-democracy protests in Bangkok all year but I knew this one would be different because they were taking place after the government banned mass gatherings. This meant the police were allowed to employ force to break up groups, which spurred thousands of people into action. I had run back to a higher position to get shots of the police assembled in formation when I saw this man pushing against the barrier on his own. I must have got four or five shots, but within seconds the demonstration was a complete mess, with the police firing water cannons and bodies flying everywhere. The protesters rely heavily on Twitter and this picture was all over Thai social media within a day. AM

Dominic Cummings leaves Downing Street
Hollie Adams/Bloomberg via Getty Images

13 November I got a call from my editor in the morning saying Cummings’ departure was imminent but spent most of the day waiting around with nothing to shoot. Around 4pm, I started to get anxious because the light was fading but I was determined to get the shot. A little later he just walked out, holding a box. I had pictured it as a wide shot of him by the door, but it came out underexposed, so I decided to follow him down the street. He didn’t seem fazed by the camera, or to even acknowledge it, which in my experience is bizarre. I remember being annoyed that he didn’t turn to face me but I think his silhouette, with the Houses of Parliament in the background, works pretty well. AM

Gang members in a cell at Quezaltepeque jail, El Salvador
José Cabezas/Reuters

23 November It’s not easy to photograph inside a jail in El Salvador, particularly those full of MS-13 gang members. A month before this photo was taken, [Latin American news site] El Faro alleged that the government had offered gang members benefits like fast food and favourable treatment in exchange for a reduction of violence on the streets. With elections due to take place next year, the government then invited the media in to prove how harsh their treatment of prisoners really was.

I had been to the jail in 2012 and was astonished at how bad it smelled and the gang-related graffiti everywhere. This time the jail was still crowded, but it was much cleaner. Every government wants to look tough but, internationally, the reaction to this image was very negative, which I can understand. It seems inhumane to cram thousands of prisoners in like that during a pandemic. AM

A hug through a Covid safety curtain in São Paulo
Nelson Almeida/AFP/Getty Images

13 June I’ve been a photojournalist in São Paulo for 32 years, so I’ve covered big health scares such as Aids and Zika before, but this pandemic is on a different level. I heard about a care home that was using a “cuddle curtain” to allow families to touch their loved ones – many of them had gone months without visitors, and they had begun to complain about how lonely they were. This picture shows Luiza Yassuko, 76, being embraced by her sister-in-law, who visited with her husband, Silvio. It’s been an intense year. I’ve followed the suffering of many people who have been negatively affected by coronavirus, but I’ve also seen people act charitably and with resilience, which has affirmed my faith in the human spirit. AM

People pay tribute to Maradona in Buenos Aires, Argentina
Paula Acunzo/Zuma Press/eyevine

25 November I received a WhatsApp message from a friend saying Maradona was dead. I was in shock and, because of Covid, I didn’t know if it would be possible for people to gather to say goodbye. I decided to go to the Argentinos Juniors club, the first place he played football – the drawing on the wall there is very popular and I knew it would give the picture context. People started to come and cry, giving kisses to the wall – it was so emotional because he represented so much for us. He was a controversial man, but people didn’t see that on this day. They were just sharing their memories and showing pictures they’d taken with Maradona. I’m not a football fan but it was still really sad for me; he’s like a hero. LH

Margaret Keenan becomes the first person in the UK to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine
Jacob King/Pool via Reuters

8 December I got to the University Hospital in Coventry at 5.15am and Margaret was vaccinated at around 6.30am. It would have been quite nerve-racking for her, but the nurse put her at ease straight away. I knew this was an important moment, and there was a lot of excitement on the clinical side of things. I took a few pictures of Margaret actually getting the jab, which I quickly filed before taking this image of her being wheeled back to the ward. The nurses were there to applaud her return – it was a really positive atmosphere and you could feel the relief. Even though there’s no glossing over the fact that a lot of people are still dying every day, it was good to see a positive news image, and hopefully the beginning of the return to normality. LH