Visual Culture

The Most Powerful Moments of Photojournalism in 2016

Molly Gottschalk
Dec 22, 2016 12:04AM

In September of this year, Facebook censored—and quickly reinstated—the iconic 1972 photograph of a nude, nine-year-old girl fleeing a napalm attack in Vietnam. The Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph is a defining image of the horrors of the war and a catalyst for Western opposition. Throughout history, images such as Napalm Girl, as the image has come to be known, have emerged as powerful emblems of major news events and social and political movements, giving a voice—and often a face—to struggles or injustices that words sometimes can’t muster.

As a challenging year winds to a close, some have suggested that the first rule of 2017 is not to talk about 2016. But in parsing the last 12 months—the refugee crisis, the United States presidential election, ISIS, Standing Rock—a number of photographs emerge that will live on long after the turn of the year. At their most impactful, these images capture a candid moment that expresses a profound facet of the human condition, distilling complex emotion, or the ethos of an entire movement or event, into a single frame. These images capture juxtapositions of power; they foster empathy, activism, and rage; they stoke our endurance, fuel our urge to fight, or catalyze peace. And while we might not talk about 2016, we’ll remember it in these eight pictures.

Air Force One Descends on Cuba

March 20, 2016

Air Force One carrying President Barack Obama and his family flies over a neighborhood of Havana as it approaches the runway to land at Havana’s international airport, March 20, 2016. REUTERS/Alberto Reyes

On March 20th, as Air Force Once descended on a suburb of Havana, President Barack Obama shattered a nearly nine-decade standoff, becoming the first sitting American president to set foot in Cuba since Calvin Coolidge cruised in via battleship in 1928. Sensing the magnitude of the situation, Cuban photojournalist Alberto Reyes positioned himself wisely; away from the security and crush of photographers swarming José Martí International Airport, he instead posted up on a quiet block where he foregrounded the iconic landing with a wide shot capturing quotidien Cuba. The resulting photograph, which immediately went viral on Instagram, has come to encapsulate this historic collision of two worlds for the first time in 88 years.

Obama’s visit marked the first step toward friendly relations between the United States and Cuba, foes since 1962, when the U.S. placed an embargo on nearly all Cuban imports. Reyes’s photograph sees the sleek aircraft, a customized Boeing 747 and emblem of modern technology, closing in on a derelict drive that appears as if frozen in time. Vintage, pre-embargo American-made cars line the block in similar hues to the paint job of the jet. Unlike the international signpost of American power, they’re telling of the technological standstill of the island nation, a country whose economy suffered greatly under the Castro regime. But as locals emerged from their automobiles to gaze toward the sky, there’s a sense (perhaps now fleeting, following some post-election proclamations) that a new future could begin as the plane’s wheels touch down on the runway.

Black Lives Matter Protest in Baton Rouge

July 9, 2016

A demonstrator protesting the shooting death of Alton Sterling is detained by law enforcement near the headquarters of the Baton Rouge Police Department in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S. July 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman/File Photo


Hundreds of black men and women lost their lives at the hands of police in 2016. Among these, several stand out in the public consciousness, after powerful photographs and traumatic video have fueled public protest and further mobilized the Black Lives Matter movement. In the wake of the fatal police shootings of two black men, Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota, on July 9th, a group of protesters gathered near the police headquarters in Baton Rouge, as did Reuters photojournalist Jonathan Bachman, who unknowingly was about to capture the struggles’ most iconic image to date.

Bachman’s image sees an unarmed black woman peacefully facing two police officers—but unlike the officers, clad head-to-toe in riot gear, the 35-year-old nurse and mother, Ieshia Evans, is dressed in a flowing sundress and ballet flats. The officers are backed up by a line of cops anonymous behind their own military-grade gear. Evans stands alone. In its formal aspects, Bachman’s image continues a long lineage of iconic photographs that pit a single protagonist against an oppressive force. Think of “Tank Man,” the solitary Chinese activist who confronted a row of army tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989; or the late Marc Riboud’s image of a 17-year-old girl offering a single flower to a row of soldiers in a 1967 anti-Vietnam War protest. These images individualize struggles in a way that can help unwind the more abstract, endemic, and hegemonic relations behind them. On another level, Evans becomes a symbol of the continued struggle—one that, in the face of adversity, exudes dignity.

Usain Bolt Smiles for the Camera at the Rio Olympic Games

August 14, 2016

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 14: Usain Bolt of Jamaica competes in the Men’s 100 meter semifinal on Day 9 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on August 14, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

On August 14th, a photograph of the world’s fastest man became an immediate icon of the Rio Olympic Games, circulating the globe at appropriately lightning speed. Taken during the Men’s 100-meter semifinals, the image catches Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt eyeing the blurry competitors behind him (or, as some thought, looking right at the camera) with a giant grin. The photograph magnifies Bolt’s dominance at the Olympic Games (he won his third gold medal in the race in as many Olympic games, shortly after the photo was taken) and quickly set off a barrage of hilarious banter across the internet: “Homie is fighting for his life and Bolt is posing for photos mid-race”; “When you’re in the middle of a 100m sprint and remember you need a new profile pic for your Facebook.”

The photograph was taken by Australian photographer Cameron Spencer, who, having shot Bolt at the last three Olympic Games, positioned himself strategically at the 70-meter mark, where the runner would no doubt be in the lead. Spencer’s slowed-down shutter emphasizes Bolt’s incredible speed, leaving his opponents in a blurry streak, only their grimacing faces show through. And while an opponent had initially taken the lead, Bolt exudes confidence and an almost comical ease in winning. He is the picture of an athlete performing at his peak—and an icon of triumph in a year with so little of it.

Syrian Child in Aleppo

August 17, 2016

ALEPPO, SYRIA - AUGUST 17: (EDITORS NOTE: Image contains graphic content.) 5-year-old wounded Syrian kid Omran Daqneesh sits alone in the back of the ambulance after he got injured during Russian or Assad regime forces air strike targeting the Qaterji neighbourhood of Aleppo on August 17, 2016. (Photo by Mahmoud Raslan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

In August, this photograph of a bloodied, shell-shocked Syrian child in the back of an ambulance in Aleppo rightfully shocked the world. It became the latest of far too many images to symbolize the horrors of the country’s civil war. Five-year-old boy Omran Daqneesh sits covered head-to-toe in a layer of dust, having been rescued from rubble following an airstrike on a rebel-held neighborhood. Like the haunting photograph of the drowned three-year-old Syrian child Alan Kurdi that captured the public’s attention in 2015, this image circled the globe as a harrowing reminder of the war’s toll.

While many in the West have become numb to the travesties enacted on the Syrian people, the war’s toll on children still strikes a chord. Daqneesh was born the year the Syrian civil war broke out and was rescued along with his three siblings and his parents. But here, his solitude is a stark expression of the many other children rendered helpless—and orphaned—in the war. “The tears started to drop as I took the photo,” recalled photographer Mahmoud Raslan, who himself is the father of a baby girl just seven days old at the time. “I thought to myself it could be her. It could be any child in Aleppo or Syria.” It is through this close-to-home effect that the photograph gains its greatest power, and one that finds even greater resonance as the battle in Aleppo reaches its end. He continued: “Today when I woke up to see the whole world using the photo and talking about it. I thought to myself, I hope all photos of children and attacks in Syria go viral so the world know what is life like here. If people knew what it was like maybe the war will stop the bombing will stop.”

Migrants Rescued Off the Coast of Libya

August 29, 2016

Migrants, most from Eritrea, jump into the water from a crowded wooden boat as they are helped by members of an NGO during a rescue operation in the Mediterranean sea, about 13 miles north of Sabratha, Libya, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. Thousands were rescued Monday morning from more than 20 boats by members of the Proactiva Open Arms NGO before transferring them to the Italian coast guard and other NGO vessels operating in the zone. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

The United Nations states that 358,406 refugees have arrived in Europe by sea in 2016—in addition to the nearly 5,000 individuals who are dead or missing following their attempts. But despite having access to such figures, it’s a photograph, like this stirring image of refugees being rescued off the coast of Libya in August, that has the most power to truly bring us into this reality. On August 29th, thousands of migrants aboard more than 20 small wooden fishing boats—each filled to its brim with passengers—were rescued mid-way through their journey from Libya to Italy.

This photograph by Emilio Morenatti, which depicts migrants as they jump ship to swim toward Italian rescuers, evokes the struggle of this journey as well as the dream of a new life it represents for all those on board. In the background, a boat is so chock-full of men, women, and children that their bodies become a single mass dotted with bright orange life jackets—save for a few legs that dangle from the side. But while the faces in the background are obscured, those swimming for their lives in open water become the focus. These are the faces of the many fleeing violence, slave labor, war, and human trafficking—and others whom rescue boats haven’t reached in time. Thanks to Morenatti, we look them in the eye—and empathize—in this critical last moment in their swim to safety.

Standing Rock

October 27, 2016

Ryan Vizzions, Defend the Sacred, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.

It would be impossible to count the number of impactful, heart-rending photographs that filled our news feeds during the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Since April, protectors from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Native Americans, and other supporters have protested the construction of the pipeline, which would threaten the source of drinking water for the roughly 10,000-person tribe as well as cut through sacred burial ground. But in the last few months, photographs have brought the issue into the public eye—from images of protesters on the reservation being shot by water cannons and tear gas in below-freezing temperatures to those taken at rallies that followed, across the globe.

But one photograph, in which an indigenous water protector on horseback sits face-to-face with a brigade of police officers, bubbles to the surface. The image was shot on October 27th by Atlanta-based photographer Ryan Vizzions and originally shared on the Standing Rock Rising Facebook page, which he created to raise awareness of the protests. Like the photograph of Ieshia Evans in Baton Rouge, or “Tank Man” in Tiananmen Square, the image finds a wildly outnumbered individual peacefully confronting an armoured opponent. In the foreground, on a grassy hill, the lone rider sits in solidarity with the natural world. The water protector’s seat on a horse stands particularly relevant in a fight predicated around a need for oil—and its nod to Native American history and heritage systematically erased over the centuries. In the distance, a line of riot gear-clad cops oppose underneath stormy skies. Faced with two futures, the water protector stands her ground in a moment that will forever remain as a symbol of the Standing Rock struggle—and the protectors’ ultimate victory to have the pipeline rerouted.

Obama and Trump Meet for the First Time

November 10, 2016

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) greets President-elect Donald Trump in the White House Oval Office in Washington, U.S., November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Following the most contentious presidential campaign in recent U.S. history, President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald J. Trump came together for a 90-minute meeting to discuss Trump’s transition into the Oval Office. It was first time the two ever met in person. Despite what the pair said about one another following the chat (Trump called Obama a “very good man,” and Obama described the conversation as “excellent”) the photograph that emerged tells its own story of this historic moment.

The image by Kevin Lamarque for Reuters finds the two men, America’s past and future commanders-in-chief, sitting side by side just two days after the election. It’s among a number of photographs snapped that afternoon that each convey their own set of complex emotions, but this frame is perhaps the most telling. As the two shake hands, their gestures indicate friendly relations not otherwise reflected in their expressions—or the campaign. During the noticeably firm handshake (Trump’s knuckles appear to be turning white), Trump is unable to look Obama—a man he’s called “the founder of ISIS”—in the eye. Meanwhile, Obama looks toward Trump with his lips pursed, as if using every power of his being to remain poised and presidential. “Neither one of them really makes eye contact,” body language expert Tonya Reiman has said. “So you’ll notice that Trump is looking down and Obama’s looking down. So they give that mutual respect of a handshake but they don’t give that mutual respect with that eye contact.”

Russian Ambassador Assassinated

December 19, 2016

An unnamed gunman gestures after shooting the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, at a photo gallery in Ankara, Turkey, Monday, Dec. 19, 2016. A gunman opened fire on Russia’s ambassador to Turkey at a photo exhibition on Monday. The Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman said he was hospitalized with a gunshot wound. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

On Monday, a 22-year-old off-duty Turkish police officer marched into the opening of an exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center in the capital of Ankara and assassinated Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrey Karlov. Clad in suit and tie, the gunman, later identified as Mevlut Mert Altintas, followed his shots by shouting “Don’t forget Aleppo, don’t forget Syria! Step back! Step back! Only death can take me from here,” in Turkish. Altintas allowed gallerygoers to run for cover, but Associated Press (AP) photographer Burhan Ozbilici held to a mission of his own, capturing what was immediately hailed as one of the most iconic, and controversial, photographs of the year.

Moments later, the gallery floor was also streaked with Altintas’s body and blood, but the world will remember him by Ozbilici’s image. It shows the assassin pacing past the dead body of his victim, wielding a pistol in his right hand and pointing to the heavens with left. “It took me a few seconds to realize what had happened: A man had died in front of me; a life had disappeared before my eyes,” Ozbilici told AP. Ozbilici’s shot covered the front page of newspapers across the globe on Tuesday, causing controversy due to its graphic nature. But the image’s quality far outweighs any arguments against it.

Rarely is the public able to glimpse an act of terrorism with such intimacy. Ozbilici brings us close enough to see Karlov’s knocked-off eyeglasses discarded in a corner, and to see the worn soles of his shoes. He also brings us close to the gunman himself, a man who, it’s worth noting, looks to Western eyes more like an agent hired to protect Ambassador Karlov than he does a terrorist out to take his life. (That we empathize more with those that look like us than those that do not is a persisting reality that we have to recognize and be self-critical of.) Particularly in a week bombarded with a renewed onslaught of images and videos of atrocities unfolding in Aleppo, viewers might arrive a vastly more morally relativist position than is typically the case when confronting an act of violence and terror. No such act is excusable. But, to the extent that the intimacy created in Ozbilici’s lens allows viewers to step inside the gunman’s motivations, it might better prepare them to address the source of the atrocious act.

Molly Gottschalk