“We don’t yet have enough distance from 2020 to know how the year will go down in history,” writes Olivia Arthur, president of Magnum Photos in her introduction to the book Magnum 2020 (Magnum Photos, 2021). It remains to be seen whether the chaotic, wide-ranging events of 2020 were a passing oddity or whether they signaled the start of a new global reality. Regardless, Arthur affirms that the year “felt different from other periods of change and crises that we have experienced in our lifetimes.”
That difference is what Magnum 2020 seeks to capture. The members of Magnum — an international photographic collaborative founded in Paris in 1947 by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and others — have documented some of the 20th and 21st centuries’ most momentous events. Magnum 2020 revisits the uncertainties and upheavals of last year through the photographs and writing of 60 of the organization’s photographers working around the world. Featuring pictures and writing by photographers on the front lines of conflicts as well as those confined within their homes, the book forms a disturbing, diverse account of a very turbulent year.
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Peter van Agtmael’s photos record some of the most excruciating moments in the United States. One picture, taken in New York City at the peak of its first wave of COVID-19 deaths, shows an impromptu morgue where shrouded bodies are stacked on plywood shelves between plastic walls. Another captures Trump’s June 2020 Tulsa rally, the upper seating deck mostly empty and a middle-aged man in a MAGA hat sleeping in the bottom of the frame. About this image, van Agtmael notes, “I feel like this country is increasingly living in a parallel world.” A heightened sense of personal involvement pervades many of the images.
Last year presented high stakes not just for the photographers’ subjects, but for the photographers themselves. Emin Özmen’s moving photos of the refugee crisis at the Turkish-Greek border resulted in his arrest by Turkish security forces. Nanna Heitmann’s tender but piercing portraits of hospital workers in Moscow remind us of the many dangers photojournalists exposed themselves to last year in order to keep the public informed. And Eli Reed’s photographs of George Floyd’s funeral procession are accompanied by a candid reflection of the experience: “I too felt the pain,” he writes. “As his body arrived near the cemetary entrance, I found myself yelling along with the crowd, ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe!’ It was six words repeated over and over again and I was not conscious of saying the words even as I pushed the shutter on my camera until the funeral procession moved past.”
A lighter view of 2020 comes from Christopher Anderson, Jonas Bendiksen, and Alessandra Sanguinetti, who all photographed their children as they navigated their time together in confinement. Cristina de Middel’s lush pictures of plants, animals, and insects are a reminder of nature’s perpetual progress, and David Hurn’s introspective shots of comfy corners of his colorful apartment are a charming reminder of the augmented importance that home took on for many throughout the year. Between these small and larger moments, Magnum 2020 is testament to Hurn’s statement in the book: “Documentation is still one of photography’s most important functions.”
Magnum 2020 is available online.