How 4 separate covers tell the story of a tumultuous year

Over 1.9 million images, taken by over 300 photographers, have been added to National geographyin 2021. As the editors pored over these stunning images to prepare for the January issue of the year in pictures, they realized that one cover wouldn’t be enough. Instead, they created four covers, each reflecting the four biggest stories of the year: COVID-19, climate change, conflict and conservation.

There was no arbitrary number of images to choose from, says Whitney Johnson, director of visuals and immersive experiences. Rather, editors have worked to organize a collection of images that tell a story.

We recently chatted with Johnson and Associate Editor Kathy Moran to learn more about the challenges of choosing each of the four cover images.


With an ongoing pandemic spurred by poor accessibility to vaccination in some corners of the world and more contagious strains of the virus spreading, it was natural to devote part of the January issue to stories about humans facing COVID-19 .

Johnson says that when you put together a printed issue, you are telling a story through words and photographs.

“Photographers tell stories alongside writers, or in some cases, they tell a larger story than writers,” says Johnson. “It’s not just a collection of pretty photographs. We tell stories through photography.

In this special issue, that’s something the editors wanted to reflect, while also helping audiences make sense of the year. And the one thing that occupied the lives and minds of most people this year was COVID-19 and the dangers it poses.

One image really captured the extremes medical workers have gone to help fight disease and vaccinate the whole world, Johnson says, and that image ended up on the cover.

In this photo by Dar Yasin, a medical worker dons personal protective equipment as he overlooks a rural community he hopes to help immunize. Johnson says the worker traveled more than seven hours by car and on foot to reach nomadic pastoralists in India.

The image may appear lonely on the surface, she says, but it also inspires “a little bit of hope,” much like the hope felt when the vaccines were first rolled out in early 2021.

Another photo, included in the issue in the COVID-19 section, shows one of Jakarta, Indonesia’s infamous mass graves, highlighting the extent of the devastation the disease has wrought around the world, while showing the individual sense of grief through the pain of a single family in the foreground. This image gives an idea of ​​the fear that mutations and a seemingly endless pandemic have manifested in the second half of the year, despite that initial hope, Johnson says.

Climate change

From an increase in forest fires to flooding around the world this year, the alarm bells have really sounded the need to highlight climate issues.

Photographer Lynsey Addario captured an intense image of the Caldor fire, which erupted near Lake Tahoe in the western United States. Addario is also responsible for another image in the Dixie fire problem that firefighters have spent months trying to control.

Both images are about fighting thick and thin in the middle of hell, Moran says.

When considering the process of reducing the image on the cover versus the inside of the magazine, Johnson says that “there is a very different form of image” to keep in mind.

The interior image of the Dixie blaze shows a lone firefighter trying to put out the fire, which appears to be a “futile attempt” against the doomsday blaze, but the photograph comes across as a powerful full horizontal image. The cover image of the Caldor fire shows a different perspective: a house in flames, which recalls the human impact and highlights the catastrophic impact of the fires on families.

Addario kept an audio diary while on assignment in California, where you can hear the fire burning in the background as she talks about embers falling from the sky. Ultimately, Johnson says, photo editors know what the photographers went through to get the photos, including the tense situation Addario found himself in.


Around the world, conflicts have manifested themselves in different ways, from political turmoil to their effects on communities. This particular cover does not directly display the conflict but is “instead taken from a conflict zone” in Afghanistan, Johnson says.

Photographer Kiana Hayeri captured a powerful portrait of a woman Johnson describes as having so much “anguish on her face” and a feeling of exhaustion.

There is a certain level of understanding that an image is able to capture and emotionally trigger a viewer with a single glance, which leads to a deeper interest in the story behind the image, Johnson explains.

“What matters is whether you, as a viewer, feel moved by this image,” she says.

In this particular case, the woman featured on the cover is 70 years old and the mother of four sons who are fighting on both sides of the conflict in Afghanistan. The conflict has stuck between her own family and that emotion is reflected on her face.


Conservation may not seem like the flagship story of the year for other outlets, but for National geography, this is always a key issue to underline. Johnson says the January issue not only covers typical conservation of wildlife, but also goes beyond to include cultural conservation.

Because the face of conservation is usually an animal, the adorable photo of a gray seal surfacing off the coast of New England ended up gracing the blanket. Brian Skerry’s photo highlights a species rebounding from the enactment of protective legislation, offering some hope for the conservation field.

Johnson says it was a challenge scaling down the footage from the 1.9 million images the team initially started with, but photo editors have been looking for images that say a lot in one frame because “we don’t We don’t have the luxury of telling a story in 12 pictures. ”Photo editors also made sure to consider the diversity in the regions of the world covered. The process of finding such iconic images took essentially the whole year. .

“We are looking for a good image. An image that grabs you and is well composed, ”says Johnson. “To stand out as a unique image, it has to be a powerful image. “

Find all the photos selected for the Year in Images 2021 here. To learn more about the photographers who contributed to this special issue, click here. Finally, see more of the best photographs of 2021, as well as the year’s most amazing finds and the year’s biggest environmental wins.