The Year in Review

Our Top Visual Stories of 2020

From Afghanistan to Mexico, and from Belarus to Cambodia, here’s the best photojournalism from a year that felt like a decade.

Franco D’Agostino, 54, returns home to his wife, Gabriella, and his three daughters in Penne, Italy, on April 27 after 42 days in the hospital. He spent 19 days in the intensive care unit for respiratory failure due to COVID-19.
Franco D’Agostino, 54, returns home to his wife, Gabriella, and his three daughters in Penne, Italy, on April 27 after 42 days in the hospital. He spent 19 days in the intensive care unit for respiratory failure due to COVID-19. STEFANO SCHIRATO FOR FOREIGN POLICY

Foreign Policy contributors brought to life the year’s most pressing stories through a powerful blend of original photography and reporting.

From unraveling the significance of spiritual scarecrows in Cambodia to describing the plight of under-resourced midwives in Afghanistan, look back at 2020 through the lens of our best visual stories.


Afghan men walk along the highway between the Turkish cities of Dogubayazit and Agri, in eastern Turkey, near the border with Iran on April 22, 2019. After crossing the border, they were unable to obtain proper documentation that would allow them to ride public transportation, forcing them to walk for hours or days as they travel toward Istanbul on their way to Europe.

Afghan men walk along the highway between the Turkish cities of Dogubayazit and Agri, in eastern Turkey, near the border with Iran on April 22, 2019. After crossing the border, they were unable to obtain proper documentation that would allow them to ride public transportation, forcing them to walk for hours or days as they travel toward Istanbul on their way to Europe.OSCAR DURAND

1. As America Shuts Its Doors, Afghan Refugees Are Stuck in Turkey

by Umar Farooq, photos by Oscar Durand, Jan. 24

At the start of the year, reporter Umar Farooq and photographer Oscar Durand portrayed the predicament of Afghan refugees left stranded in Turkey. The Trump administration’s expanded vetting of immigrants and its cap of 18,000 asylum visas made their hopes of building a new life in the United States nearly inconceivable. Farooq writes: “Neither the bloodletting in Afghanistan nor the droves of refugees showing up on Western doorsteps have prompted sympathy from the world’s wealthiest nations. Afghanistan is a conflict the West would rather forget.”

Toward the end of this year, tragedy struck for refugees once again. Moria, Europe’s largest refugee camp, was destroyed after a fire. Writer Andrew Connelly and photographer Nicola Zolin reported from Lesbos, Greece, on how the event highlights a dire need for Europe to rethink its migration policy so that it lifts the burden off of Mediterranean nations. 


Emanuela De Nicolo walks out of Santo Spirito Hospital on May 5 on her way home after 58 days in the hospital.

Emanuela De Nicolo walks out of Santo Spirito Hospital on May 5 on her way home after 58 days in the hospital.STEFANO SCHIRATO FOR FOREIGN POLICY

2. Italy’s Next Phase: Returning Home

by Jenny Pacini, photos by Stefano Schirato, May 16

In the early stages of coronavirus lockdowns, global attention focused on Italy as the country experienced some of the steepest rises in coronavirus cases worldwide. In May, Jenny Pacini and photographer Stefano Schirato reported from intensive care units across the country to intimately describe how some coronavirus patients were beginning an important next phase to their recovery: a return home.


A hospital worker waits outside a COVID-19 triage unit at the General Hospital of Mexico in Mexico City on May 21.

A hospital worker waits outside a COVID-19 triage unit at the General Hospital of Mexico in Mexico City on May 21. LUIS ANTONIO ROJAS FOR FOREIGN POLICY

3. Mourning in Mexico

by Maya Averbuch, photos by Luis Antonio Rojas, June 1

Mexican culture pays special care and attention to the dead. But due to lockdown measures, none of the age-old traditions to mourn those who have departed are possible now. In June, Maya Averbuch and photographer Luis Antonio Rojas reported from Mexico City on how families are bending tradition to help stop the spread of the coronavirus—but many still doubt the lockdown protocols will protect them. 

Later this year, reporter Lorena Ríos and photographer Armando Vega told the stories of Mexican workers in the United States who have so far sent record remittances home in 2020. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the hidden cost of migration for families that rely on relatives in the United States to put a roof over their head. As COVID-19 cases surge again, families in Mexico face the question of whether migration is worth it.


A family visits a young monk living in a monastery on Phnom Chisor for a blessing on April 5, while another monk looks on. <span class="attribution"> Jade Sacker for Foreign Policy </span>

A family visits a young monk living in a monastery on Phnom Chisor for a blessing on April 5, while another monk looks on. Jade Sacker for Foreign Policy

4. In Cambodia, a Spiritual Army Battles an Earthly Pandemic

by Jade Sacker, June 12

While Cambodia has among the lowest number of coronavirus cases in Southeast Asia, there have been uncorroborated reports of rampant coronavirus-related deaths in the countryside, prompting many to turn to old spiritual protectors, or ting mong, for help. Jade Sacker reported from several homes in the Takeo, Kandal, and Kampong Speu provinces to show why these scarecrows are so important.


Opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya boosts her height with books as she prepares to film a press video with Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova in Minsk on Aug. 6 ahead of the election.

Opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya boosts her height with books as she prepares to film a press video with Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova in Minsk on Aug. 6 ahead of the election. Jonny Pickup for Foreign Policy

5. The Woman Who Started a Revolution in Minsk

by Gareth Browne, photos by Jonny Pickup, Aug. 17

After 26 years in power, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko guaranteed himself a questionable victory in the country’s presidential election in August. What followed were mass protests, thousands of arrests, and a call for the return of opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Writer Gareth Browne and photographer Jonny Pickup reported from Minsk on Tikhanovskaya’s rise to prominence.

In September, another key opposition leader, Maria Kolesnikova, was detained in Minsk. Browne and Pickup teamed up once again to depict how Kolesnikova’s disappearance seemed to have robbed the anti-government protest movement of its momentum.


Midwife trainees prepare the labor ward for the first patients of the day at Mirwais Hospital on Feb. 18.

Midwife trainees prepare the labor ward for the first patients of the day at Mirwais Hospital on Feb. 18. Lynzy Billing for Foreign Policy⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

Plus: The Midwives on the Front Lines

by Lynzy Billing, July 6

Many of our visual stories this year were too impactful to ignore. Such is the case for Lynzy Billing’s deep dive into the lives of midwives in Afghanistan. This particular community of front-line medical workers has stepped in to become one of the most vital forces in the country’s overstretched health care system, especially as coronavirus cases mount and regional violence escalates.

Kelly Kimball is the social media editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @kellyruthk

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