Visual Culture

The Most Powerful Moments in Photojournalism in 2019

Jacqui Palumbo
Dec 23, 2019 7:30PM

Each year, more and more people are able to tune into major world events from their own homes. Photojournalists are tasked with creating unforgettable images that make an immediate impact, provide crucial visual context, and remain as unbiased as possible. Photographs are often our first and longest impression of a news event—we see the image before the headline as we scan our social media feeds, and images can be disseminated faster than journalists can write. Long after we’ve forgotten the details of a particular feature, the feeling of a powerful image remains.

This year, images of Hong Kong protestors have become emblematic of the fight for autonomy under increasingly dystopian settings. Photographs of Notre-Dame and the Amazon burning triggered ardent international attention. And young girls saw the best gymnast in the world perform history-making routines at the United States and world championships. These 10 images represent the most powerful photojournalism moments of 2019.

Simone Biles makes history at the 2019 World Gymnastics Championships

Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images.

Since earning four gold medals at the 2016 Olympics, Simone Biles has dominated women’s gymnastics and has held the world’s attention with gravity-defying skills. Her performance in Stuttgart, Germany, for the World Gymnastics Championships resulted in her 24th world medal—the most for any gymnast, male or female. Photographer Laurence Griffiths captured this shot on October 13th of her record-breaking routine on the balance beam. Just after, Biles collected another gold medal for good measure on the floor.

Both of these routines at Stuttgart were history-making. In August, at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, Biles became the first gymnast ever to dismount from the balance beam with a double-twisting double somersault, and the first female gymnast to land a triple-twisting double somersault during her floor routine. Landing them for a second time at Stuttgart established the moves’ new names: the Biles and Biles II, respectively.

The Sudan Uprising causes a monumental but troubled power shift

Photo by Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images.


Sudan has seen major unrest, violence, and transitions of power since railway workers took to the streets last December to protest low salaries and high unemployment rates in Atbara. The uprisings turned into national protests against former president Omar al-Bashir. In April, the Sudanese military ousted the autocratic leader, and in June, they killed at least 100 people in a protest camp in Khartoum.

On June 19th, more than two weeks after the Khartoum massacre, photographer Yasuyoshi Chiba witnessed a young Sudanese man in the capital city reading a poem about revolution in the glow of protestors’ mobile phones. Demonstrators have demanded a civilian government, but the future remains murky. The ruling Transitional Military Council agreed to a structure that shares power with a civilian-led transitional government, but the military would remain in control for nearly the first two years. Meanwhile, in Atbara, where the revolution first took hold, the conditions that sparked Sudan’s uprising still remain.

Notre-Dame burns in Paris

Photo by Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images.

On April 15th, a fire broke inside of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, destroying its wooden roof and collapsing its spire. The French Gothic building, one of the most recognized landmarks in the world, burned for over nine hours. Many photographers arrived on the scene as it unfolded and Parisians looked on in shock. Photojournalist Veronique de Viguerie took this image as dusk settled on the city, showing the bright flame still blazing.

Following the fire, French president Emmanuel Macron announced an international architectural competition to redesign the roof of the damaged landmark, but so far, reconstruction plans have been fraught. The winning plans were nixed after legislation was passed in May requiring the cathedral to be rebuilt according to its original design. In November, news outlets reported that project head Jean-Louis Georgelin and chief architect Philippe Villeneuve have exchanged heated words over the design of the spire. Macron aims to have reconstruction completed by the Olympic Games in summer 2024, which will take place in Paris.

Environmental activist Greta Thunberg visits Washington, D.C.

Photo by Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images.

In August, 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg embarked on a 15-day journey to reach the United States for a series of environmental events, sailing across the Atlantic Ocean with a team to keep her carbon footprint low. On September 13th, photographer Sarah Silbiger took this image of Thunberg with fellow student activists outside of the White House. Thunberg spent six days in Washington, D.C., before traveling to New York for the UN Climate Action Summit, where her impassioned speech to world leaders went viral.

She participated in the Global Climate Strikes from September 20th to the 27th, a 6-million person demonstration across the world that was inspired by Thunberg’s original school strike. Thunberg has become an inspirational figure for many since she began protesting outside of Swedish Parliament last year, but she has been particularly lauded for motivating Gen Z environmentalists. In December, she was named Time’s Person of the Year.

Donald Trump writes notes for his impeachment inquiry press conference

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

On November 20th, when U.S. president Donald Trump held a presser about the ongoing impeachment inquiry hearings, a surprising photograph went viral. Photojournalist Mark Wilson snapped a picture of his talking points, scrawled in sharpie on an Air Force One notepad. It read: “I WANT NOTHING. I WANT NOTHING. I WANT NO QUID PRO QUO. TELL ZELLINSKY TO DO THE RIGHT THING. THIS IS THE FINAL WORD FROM THE PRES OF THE U.S.”

Getty Images posted the image to Twitter and it was quickly picked up by major outlets. Critics of the president derided him for his strange, repetitive language; misspelling of Ukranian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s name; and the fact that he needed notes at all to remember his simple talking points. Wilson’s image became an unlikely icon of the impeachment process, which began in August when a whistleblower revealed that Trump had allegedly withheld aid to Ukraine unless Zelensky agreed to dig up dirt on presidential candidate Joe Biden.

The Midwestern U.S. experiences historic flooding

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

When Scott Olson took this photo of a roadway in Saint Mary, Missouri, submerged under water on May 30th, the Midwest had already been deluged by water for more than two months. The U.S. experienced the wettest year ever from May 1, 2018, to April 30, 2019, and flooding from the Mississippi, Missouri, and Arkansas rivers have affected 14 million people and caused nearly $3 billion in property damage. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, climate and weather disasters have cost the U.S. more than $10 billion this year as of October 8th.

Olson’s photograph shows the high waters that have displaced Midwesterners and deeply impacted agricultural production. In September, the New York Times published an interactive composite map to show the scale of the flooding. Though some areas have begun to rebuild, others have had no relief: The Missouri River may flood throughout winter due to a particularly wet season, an already saturated ground, and levees in disrepair.

Hong Kong demonstrators spend months clashing with police forces

Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images.

Hong Kong protesters have shown their resilience since June, when hundreds of thousands of residents first took to the streets to demand the withdrawal of an extradition bill that would afford more Chinese influence in the autonomous region. The demonstrations have continued since then, bringing international attention to the cause.

This image by Chris McGrath was taken on August 25th in the Tsuen Wan district, showing two demonstrators fighting with the police. Police have often reacted with violence, blinding one girl and beating others on public transportation. Hong Kongers have become highly organized, subverting police tactics by using umbrellas and tennis racquets for defense, and laser pointers to disrupt facial recognition software.

Though the extradition bill was officially killed, mass marches have continued to effect change. In November, Hong Kong’s elections saw major wins for pro-democracy parties.

Wildfires burn the Amazon rainforest

Photo by Victor Moriyama/Getty Images.

On August 25th, photojournalist Victor Moriyama surveyed the burning Amazon rainforest from above, taking this aerial shot near Porto Velho, Brazil. During the month, the news cycle turned its attention to the surge of fires that had cropped up in the world’s largest tropical rainforest, deemed “the lungs of the world.” The country’s National Institute for Space Research reported an 84 percent spike in wildfires in the region based on its satellite data. The photographs that circulated caused mass internet panic, empathy, and calls for action.

The drastic increase has been attributed to industrial-scale deforestation and lax forest laws. The Amazon has self-sustaining moisture, generating clouds and rain, but since 1970, 20 percent of the forest has been cleared. Warmer temperatures exacerbate the already dry conditions. Those factors are still present, and the Amazon continues to burn, though the news cycle moved on when the number of fires dropped in September.

Southern California weathers back-to-back earthquakes

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

A sequence of two major earthquakes hit Ridgecrest, California, in July, triggering more than 100,000 aftershocks around Southern California. Photographer Mario Tama visited the neighboring Trona, about 170 miles north of Los Angeles, which had been rocked by the 6.4- and 7.1-magnitude tremors. There, he met Chimene and Johnnie Jackson, who were sleeping outside of her parents’ home on mattresses due to dangerous structural damage inside. Their tenderness on a shared mattress was a moment of respite during a hard week for residents. The town had struggled economically before the tremors hit, causing widespread blackouts, broken sidewalks, rockslides, and loss of drinking water.

The earthquakes surprised geophysicists monitoring fault lines in the state. The Garlock fault had remained relatively quiet for half a century, but researchers found in October that it had shifted .8 inches, sending a warning signal that another large quake could be on the way.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern shows support for the Muslim community following the Christchurch attacks in New Zealand

Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images.

Following two mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15th, the country’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, visited community members to show her support. Photographer Hagen Hopkins was on the scene at Kilbirnie Mosque in Wellington two days later, taking this image of Ardern embracing a mosque-goer. Ardern has since rallied against online extremism, penning an op-ed in the New York Times, and meeting with EU leaders to form an initiative to tackle the complex issue.

A week after the attacks, which claimed 51 lives total and were collectively the worst mass shooting in New Zealand, hundreds of people came together at the Kilbirnie Mosque to form a human chain around the building. The act of solidarity was seen around the world on social media.

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