Visual Culture

The Most Powerful Moments in Photojournalism in 2018

Jacqui Palumbo
Dec 21, 2018 3:48PM

This year, the number of internet users worldwide reached the record-setting 4-billion mark, according to a report from We Are Social and Hootsuite. As 3 billion people access social media each month, our world has never been so connected—and so, it’s never been easier for high-impact photographs to rapidly spread, at times so fast that their necessary context gets left behind. Photojournalists remain crucial to our understanding of world events, providing us with front-row views that would otherwise be inaccessible. Here, we share the unforgettable news images that defined 2018.

Photojournalist Shahidul Alam is silenced during a court appearance

Photo by Suvra Kanti Das. Courtesy of Suvra Kanti.


On August 22nd, photographer Ronny Sen uploaded to Facebook a black-and-white photo of Bangladeshi photojournalist Shahidul Alam, his eyes wide, his mouth covered by the forceful hand of a police officer. Alam was making a court appearance after being arrested earlier in the month. The image was taken by another photographer, Sen wrote, who wished to remain anonymous.

After Alam criticized the corruption in the Bangladeshi government to Al Jazeera TV and in a personal Facebook video, he was arrested late at night by 20 to 30 plainclothes officers who entered his home and took him into custody. There was an international outcry following the arrest; Alam was detained for 102 days, during which he was reportedly beaten, before being granted bail.

But the photographer behind this image no longer wishes to remain anonymous, he told Artsy. Suvra Kanti Das is a Bangladeshi photojournalist who has covered issues in his native country that range from the violence spurred by political issues to the dangerous pollution in Dhaka. (He was also a student at the school founded by Alam, the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute.) Though several photographs of Alam circulated widely to international media, Das’s hits hard. “If the Bangladesh government has nothing to hide, why are they so afraid of him?” Sen wrote in the initial post. “Why are a bunch of cowards covering Shahidul’s mouth?”

Angela Merkel stares down Donald Trump at the G7 summit

Photo by Jesco Denzel/Bundesregierung via Getty Images.

On June 9th, German chancellor Angela Merkel shared on her official Instagram account a photograph of herself, surrounded by world leaders, seemingly in conflict with U.S. president Donald Trump at the G7 summit in Quebec. In it, she is standing, imposing, on one side of the table, bracing her arms as she leans down to look him in the eyes; Trump, sitting with his arms crossed, appears petulant.

It seemed easy to fill in the blanks on their conversation and the mood of the photograph, taken by photojournalist Jesco Denzel. Trump has repeatedly insisted that Germany owes the U.S. an exorbitant amount of money; Merkel, reportedly, has had to explain to Trump the basics of trade with the EU. Ahead of the summit, Trump had publicly feuded with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, announced new tariffs on ally countries, and suggested that Russia once again be included in the summit (Russia, once part of G8, had been kicked out after annexing Crimea in 2014).

The internet seized upon the image as an instance of Merkel lecturing the U.S. president, but other images from the same meeting showed Merkel, Trump, and the other leaders smiling, illustrating that the single image may not have captured the complexities of their negotiations at the summit.

North Korea sends a delegation of cheerleaders to the Winter Olympics in South Korea

Photo by Damir Sagolj/Reuters.


For most countries, the Olympics is a chance for glory and pride. But for North and South Korea, the 2018 Winter Olympics held special political significance, as the latter nation played host to the events. Throughout 2017, tensions ran high as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un continued to test long-range missiles and publicy exchange heated words with U.S. president Donald Trump.

So it was a surprise when Jong-un decided to open up communication with South Korean leader Moon Jae-in just after the new year, resulting in the first high-level talks in two years (the two would later meet in person in April). North Korea was a last-minute addition to the Pyeongchang Winter Games; the country sent more than 200 cheerleaders to buoy 22 athletes.

In this image by Damir Sagolj, the cheerleaders—or “army of beauties,” as they were dubbed by news outlets—wave small North Korean flags during the couples free-skating final on February 15th. The image of the cheerleaders, standing in tight formation, is formally beautiful, but also haunting—the squad was kept isolated and closely guarded to keep them from attempting to defect. Their presence was shadowed further by a report from a former military musician in North Korea, who defected in 2008, that said the cheerleaders are required to provide sexual services to high-ranking politicians.

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testifies at Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate hearing

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

In mid-September, California professor Dr. Christine Blasey Ford revealed to the Washington Post that she was the anonymous woman who had accused then–U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault. Less than two weeks later, she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, recollecting the high school party where he allegedly pinned her to a bed, groped her, and covered her mouth.

This photo, by Win McNamee, captured the moment Dr. Ford took her oath, with the rigorous mathematical precision prized in Renaissance and Neoclassical paintings. Her attorneys, flanking her on either side, gaze up at her, while she stands perfectly centered between all foreground and background elements, and beneath a gold sunburst-like clock that hovers above her head like a halo.

The image echoes Jacques-Louis David’s drawing of another oath taken more than two centuries ago: the Tennis Court Oath, a key moment in the French Revolution that has a similarly heroic composition. McNamee’s image also calls to mind Renaissance painter Cima da Conegliano’s Madonna and Child with Saint Jerome and Saint John the Baptist(1492–95), not just in its format, but in the likeness between Mary’s deep blue dress and Dr. Ford’s navy suit. Women are still routinely asked what they were wearing at the time of their assault, but what they wear to face their assaulter can be made more symbolic instead: In 1991, supporters of Anita Hill wore the same teal color that she’d donned to testify against Justice Clarence Thomas; Ford’s tailored blue suit held similar power.

The New York Times and New York Times Magazine publish stories on the crisis in Yemen

Photo by Tyler Hicks/The New York Times/Redux.

On October 26th, the New York Times published an interactive report, “The Tragedy of Saudi Arabia’s War,” headlined with an image of Amal, a seven-year-old Yemeni girl who was starving, her hands partially covering the small bones of her ribcage, her head turned away. Just days after the Times published the image, the newspaper reported Amal had died.

On the November 1st cover of the New York Times Magazine, 20-year-old Mariam Hamdan held her one-year-old daughter on her hip, the child’s stomach distended and her legs and arms impossibly thin. One of Hamdan’s three children had already passed away. The editor in chief, Jake Silverstein, wrote: “We do not take lightly the decision to publish an image that shows such acute suffering, especially on the cover, but we believe it’s important, at times, to confront readers directly with the painful realities of the world.”

Photo by Lynsey Addario/Getty Images.

The photographs—Amal taken by Tyler Hicks; Mariam by Lynsey Addario—forced a hard truth: that Saudi Arabia’s war against the Houthi movement in Yemen was killing and starving millions of Yemenis, and America was complicit. There have been brutal civilian bombings and a devastating outbreak of cholera, and 14 million people face starvation. Hicks’s and Addario’s images were published just weeks after the murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which thrust U.S. and Saudi relations into the spotlight.

“The tragedy in Yemen did not grow out of a natural disaster,” reporter Eric Nagourney and international editor Michael Slackman wrote. “It is a slow-motion crisis brought on by leaders of other countries who are willing to tolerate extraordinary suffering by civilians to advance political agendas.”

Neo-Nazis in America burn a swastika after holding a rally in Newnan, Georgia

Photo by Go Nakamura/Reuters.

On April 21st, in Draketown, Georgia, following a rally in nearby Newnan, members of the Nationalist Socialist Movement set fire to a towering swastika, as well as an othala rune (not pictured), which is associated with the Third Reich. Go Nakamura was one of the photographers on the scene to capture the brazen gathering of Neo-Nazis in the rural South.

The preceding rally was much smaller than last summer’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, which resulted in 19 injuries and one death when a supporter drove his car through a group of counter-protesters. But fearing that violence would break out between the two-dozen white nationalists and 100 anti-racism protesters, around 700 police officers were dispatched to the rally in Greenville Street Park. Though there was no fighting, police officers arrested a handful of counter-protesters for not removing their masks, which, as Time pointed out, they were required to do, due to an anti–Klu Klux Klan law passed in 1950.

Nakamura’s image is jarring because it doesn’t seem like it should exist in 2018—yet the Southern Poverty Law Center reported last year that the number of hate groups in the U.S. had increased by 20 percent since 2014; the same year, the FBI reported a 17-percent spike in hate crimes, including a 37-percent spike in anti-Semitic attacks. In October, a man who reportedly supported white nationalists opened fire in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 people.

The last male northern white rhino dies in Kenya

Photo by Ami Vitale/Nat Geo Image Collection.

Nearly a decade ago, National Geographic photographer Ami Vitale first met Sudan, one of the few remaining northern white rhinos left on the Earth. This March, she said goodbye to him and took his last photos.

There was a concerted effort for Sudan to procreate during the past nine years—Vitale met him when he and three other rhinos were being transported from Kenya to a zoo in the Czech Republic to keep them safe from poachers, and in hopes that they would mate. Sudan even joined Tinder to raise funds for in-vitro fertilization. He later returned to Kenya, and Vitale continued to photograph him and his caretakers each year.

But Sudan did not successfully mate, and at 45 years old, he had to be euthanized. “When he died, it was silent except for one little go-away-bird chirping ‘go away, go away, go away,’” Vitale recalled to CNN. Her photos show Sudan at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, as his caretaker, Joseph Wachira, comforted and said goodbye to his longtime friend.

A photograph of a Palestinian demonstrator draws art-historical comparisons

Photo by Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Since late March, protesters in Gaza City have demonstrated against the 11-year blockade of the Gaza strip enforced by Israel and Egypt, which began in 2007 following Hamas’s rise to power. The blockade inhibits trade and mobility; in September, the World Bank reported that it has plunged half of the 1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza below the poverty line.

On October 22nd, demonstrators rallied support for a 13th attempt to break the blockade. Photographer Mustafa Hassouna took a photo of one man that went viral, drawing comparisons to two famous works of art history. Set against the billowing smoke of burning tires, 20-year-old A’ed Abu Amro arched his body back, winding his left arm to hurl a slingshot while waiving the Palestinian flag with his right.

Laleh Khalili, a professor at SOAS University of London, tweeted a comparison between Hassouna’s image and the famous Eugène Delacroix painting Liberty Leading the People (1830), in which the incarnation of Liberty holds the tricolor French flag as she guides her people forward. A second person responded to her tweet, posting pictures of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s intense and groundbreaking 1623 sculpture of David as he twists his body, one moment from hitting Goliath with his slingshot.

Women in Buenos Aires dress as handmaids from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian future

Photo by Alejandro Pagni/AFP/Getty Images.

On August 5th, a line of women wearing the distinctive blood-red cloaks and white bonnets of the novel-turned-show The Handmaid’s Tale filed through Buenos Aires’s Parque de la Memoria. Argentinian photojournalist Alejandro Pagni followed them along as they made their way through the park; in other images, they each held up green headscarves that had become symbolic of the fight to legalize abortion in their country.

Three days later, the Argentinian senate would vote on the bill, which would have allowed abortions during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. It was narrowly rejected. A woman who demonstrated at the congressional building quoted the novel’s author, Margaret Atwood. “Nobody likes abortion, even when safe and legal,” she read. “But nobody likes women bleeding to death on the bathroom floor from illegal abortions, either. What to do?”

The costumes from the current TV show, based on Atwood’s dystopian 1985 novel—in which able women are forced to bear children for the upper crust of society, following an infertility crisis—have become a striking visual symbol for women’s rights. Women dressed as handmaids have also appeared in Austin, Washington, D.C., Dublin, Belfast, and London.

After ISIS is defeated in Mosul, theme parks, nightlife, and celebrations return to the city

Photo by Ivor Prickett. Courtesy of Ivor Prickett.

This spring, photojournalist Ivor Prickett returned to a different Mosul. He’d been in the thick of the nine months of grueling battle against the Islamic State during 2016 and 2017, in the last city in Iraq where they still retained control. Prickett was there after the Iraqi government declared victory in July 2017, when Iraqi forces still struggled to reclaim ISIS’s final holdout in the Old City. The fighting was slow and brutal, leaving rubble and the burned husks of cars in its wake. Mosul’s residents had lived in constant fear since ISIS first occupied the city in 2014. And while returning to a sense of normalcy seems insurmountable after such an endeavor, that’s just what Prickett saw when he came back to photograph the city in May.

Prickett’s images, which he will publish in an upcoming volume with Steidl, are scenes of hope. He took photos of weddings and Valentine’s Day and sporting events. He visited a new bar that had opened a month before, as well as a joyous graduation ceremony at Mosul University, which had been shut down and only reopened under strict ISIS control.

He also visited a new amusement park on the eastern banks of the Tigris River, where families could relax and enjoy their day. But just across the river, the Old City still lies in partial ruin. “But that is what Mosul is like, full of contradictions,” wrote Prickett in an essay for the New York Times. “In so many ways it can appear normal until you turn a corner.”

Parisian protesters clash with riot police in front of the Arc de Triomphe

Photo by Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images.

On December 1st, for the third weekend in a row, demonstrators in Paris wearing bright-yellow vests took to the streets to protest a fuel tax slated for the 2019 budget. The vests, which every driver in France is required to keep in their car, stood out in the visual clutter of the protests, even through the haze of tear gas lobbed at the demonstrators.

Photojournalist Véronique de Viguerie, who recently won the Visa d’Or prize for her work in Yemen—the first woman in 20 years to be honored—photographed the hectic scene at the Arc de Triomphe. The protests have turned to riots, with the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) setting cars ablaze, smashing windows, looting stores, and tagging public property—including the Arc de Triomphe—with graffiti.

The BBC reported that the yellow vests are made up of far-left anarchists, far-right nationalists, “and plenty of moderates in between,” reacting not only to the tax hike, but to France’s high cost of living. Though President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced that the tax would be dropped from the budget, the city has remained tense, temporarily closing the Musée du Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, among other major tourist spots, in the face of continued unrest.

A photograph of a young Honduran girl near the U.S.–Mexico border goes viral

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images.

On June 13th, Getty Images staff photographer John Moore posted an image of a distraught two-year-old Honduran girl on Instagram and Twitter, taken during a recent ride-along with U.S. Border Patrol. The toddler, in a pink shirt and sneakers illuminated by Moore’s flash, cried as an agent searched her mother beside her.

The girl and her mother were part of a group, made up of mostly women and children, who had just crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico. Less than two months before, the Trump administration had announced a zero-tolerance policy, which Moore wrote on Instagram “calls for the separation of parents and children while their cases for political asylum are adjudicated, a process that can take months—or years.” He added: “As a father myself, this photograph was especially difficult for me to take.”

At the time, Moore did not know where the girl and her mother would end up, as he told the Washington Post, but he later found out that they were being held in a detention center together. By then, the image had been disseminated on social media, on the front page of the New York Times, and on the cover of Time magazine. While some outlets seized upon the image as “fake news” because the girl had not been taken from her mother, others pointed out that thousands of other children had been separated and detained—and they continue to be, despite the policy’s official end on June 20th.

Young Venezuelans forge ahead in a country in crisis

Photo courtesy of The New York times/Redux.

Since 2014, more than 2 million Venezuelans have left their country in pursuit of stability. Hyperinflation has reached unfathomable heights there—830,000 percent, as of October—resulting in images of Venezuelans with stacks of bolivars to pay for the most basic goods.

This June, the New York Times published a story about the youth who are choosing not to leave the country, entitled “Those Who Stay.” Among the photographs are images of tattoo artist Luis Itanare; local DJ Maria Betania Chacin, who goes by Mabe; clothing designer Koji Ramos; and a theater troupe, as well as young adults hanging out in their neighborhoods and dancing in clubs. In this image, a young couple, Javier and Solimar, lock arms and eyes on a rooftop, seemingly fully present in this single moment.

Though many seek opportunity elsewhere due to the collapse of Venezuela’s oil exports and corruption within the government, others remain, shaping their futures in their native country. “I think young people these days feel this enormous pressure that they have to graduate and get out of here because that’s all you hear,” Mabe told the Times. “The media are always repeating that here there is no future. I don’t share that opinion. That’s why I live here.”

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lights up the sky over central California

Photo by Justin Borja. Courtesy of Justin Borja.

Late in the evening on October 7th, a bright flash lit up the central California skies. Enough observers of the phenomenon took to social media with their pictures of an alleged extraterrestrial sighting that Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti posted to his own Twitter account: “Nope, definitely not aliens. What you’re looking at is the first launch and landing of the @SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on the West Coast.”

This photo, by Justin Borja, shows the Falcon 9 in the distance, with San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge in the foreground. Though the Air Force had warned Californians that they might see its engines burning in the sky or hear a sonic boom, people from California to Nevada to Arizona got a view of the rocket as it launched from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County with an Argentinian satellite and returned eight minutes later.

SpaceX, headed by billionaire Elon Musk, has successfully launched and landed more than 30 reusable rockets, but this was the first for the West Coast; others have taken off and returned to Florida’s Cape Canaveral, or have made daring (and precarious) landings on small platforms in the middle of the Atlantic.

Saudi women are allowed to drive for the first time in more than half a century

Photo by Tasneem Alsultan/The New York Times/Redux.

In June, Saudi women took to the streets to drive cars legally for the first time since 1957. For more than half a century, under a strict policy—the only one of its kind in the world—that disallowed female motorists, women in Saudi Arabia had to rely on men to drive.

The policy change was announced in September 2017 by the new crown prince, then-32-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, as part of a package of social and economic reforms called Vision 2030. Women in Saudi Arabia have been notoriously marginalized under restrictive guardianship laws, but they have recently gained the right to attend events like concerts, sports games, and movies on their own.

Lifting the driving ban is part of a larger plan to spur economic growth by adding women to the workforce, but it is overshadowed by the number of women’s rights activists who have been jailed over the decades. As recently as May, a top aide to bin Salman (the same aide who was fired for his alleged role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi) reportedly oversaw the detainment and torture of women, in order to dissuade future social activism.

In preparation for new incoming drivers, Saudi driving schools, companies, and universities began offering driving courses for women. On March 5th, Saudi-American photojournalist Tasneem Alsultan photographed a group of women laughing as they participated in a car-safety course together, with one woman in a white headscarf behind the wheel. Alsultan’s image is just one of the many happy photographs that spread across the news and social media—Saudi woman took to Instagram to post pictures of their licenses and their cars, and proud husbands and fathers posted videos of their loved ones driving for the first time.

A mother and her two children run away from tear gas deployed at the U.S.–Mexico Border

Photo by Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters.

In the weeks leading up to the U.S. midterm election, President Trump ramped up his rhetoric against migrants and asylum-seekers. A caravan of migrants (the second one to reach the U.S. this year) had left from Honduras, traveling together to keep safe.

But after the midterms, Trump went silent on the issue. Then, on November 25th, a picture by photojournalist Kim Kyung Hoon began to circulate: A mother, Maria Mesa, and her twin daughters running from a canister of tear gas deployed at the border; the girls were in diapers, and one was barefoot, as Mesa wrenched them away from danger.

It was a hard-hitting image that came at the end of Thanksgiving weekend, when many Americans had just spent time with family. In the reports that followed, Kim said that Mesa and her children, who had traveled from Honduras as part of the caravan, were trying to reunite with the children’s father in Louisiana.

Though the outlet The Gateway Pundit quickly spread a conspiracy theory that Kim’s image was fake due to the presence of other photographers, border patrol confirmed they used tear gas to move the crowd back. The day had spun out of control at the Tijuana crossing point, following a peaceful march over the days-long wait time to plead a case for asylum. According to U.S. officials, border patrol responded with “less-lethal” force when people began to rush the border and throw “projectiles,” though accounts on the ground have varied.

Somali-American Ilhan Omar is elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives

Photo by Eric Miller/Reuters.

This November, Americans voted in the most diverse freshman class of Democrats yet, including the first two Muslim women elected to Congress: Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib.

Omar, who is also the first Somali-American to serve, beat out the 22-term Democratic incumbent in the primary before winning against Republican nominee Jennifer Zielinski. Her whirlwind midterm campaign ended in this ecstatic moment, captured by photographer Eric Miller, as she celebrated with her husband’s mother at her election party on November 6th. Omar and her family were refugees who came to the U.S. when she was just 12 years old; Miller’s image shows the promise of the American dream, in which a little girl can come to a new country to start over and one day become a leader. It’s a particularly important image, coming nearly two years after the Trump administration enacted a travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries, including Omar’s native Somalia.

But the 35-year-old legislator, who wears a headscarf, will bring the tide of change with her, starting with the House floor: Congressional Democrats plan to overturn the ban on headwear when they take office next year.

Jacqui Palumbo
Jacqui Palumbo is a contributing writer for Artsy Editorial.