The political news cycle was all-consuming this year. And you could certainly retrace the year through the art that addressed the news. But I thought, here at the end of 2018, that I could also do the reverse, too: Take a look at Getty’s news photos of the year, find the ones that strike me as particularly symbolically powerful or lasting, and try to say why I think they have a little more staying power.
It is the vocation of a photo service to offer up images that provide evidence or that put a face to a story. Sometimes, however, they become bigger than that. This happens when an image of a specific news event comes to symbolize something more—a trend, a sensibility, an idea. Sometimes this is a matter of the expert collision of subject matter and composition; sometimes, it is basically an accident.
Here are 10 photos that reached this heightened status that 2018 leaves behind.
1. Escaping Marjory Stoneman Douglas
There are more heart-wrenching images that relate to February’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and its aftermath, and more heroic ones. This file of kids holding each other as they exit the school with a military sentinel looking on is memorable because it is neither heroic nor tragic—just capturing the harrowing and ordinary reality of surviving America’s horrible routine.
2. A Toxic Crime Scene
One of the more macabre and alarming of the year’s stories was the poisoning of ex-Russian military agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia by Russian operatives in Salisbury using military-grade nerve toxin. This shot illustrates the investigation of the park site where the two were found, both frothing at the mouth and paralyzed. Here, the scene’s telephoto distance, the solitary figure in protective gear, and the unreal halogen glare all converge to provide an image of the ordinary order of things plunged into spooky, and toxic, uncertainty.
3. Facebook Live
The truth is that Zuckerberg mainly held off his many grand-standing critics during the April congressional hearings on Facebook. Yet the tech giant’s woes only intensified throughout 2018, and you know why this particular portrait of his testimony is one that sticks over the more stoic, or even combative, ones: pallid, glimpsed slightly from above, and isolated against a faceless crowd that looks less rapt than embarrassed for him, Zuck seems to be staring straight at you with an expression that could be angry or lost, and in the end is just unsettlingly unreadable—the face of a corporation at once imperiously powerful and mired in problems that it can’t fully admit or manage.
4. Michael Cohen: Ready for His Close-Up
President Trump’s former “pit bull” fixer Michael Cohen became a character everyone knew this year, eventually testifying against his boss and being sentenced to three years in prison. Amid endless coverage, the emblematic photo was this one: a tight close-up that makes Cohen seem boxed in, literally twisting awkwardly in mid-scheme, his plaid suit making him look like the outlandish character he was, his blank swagger seemingly eroding fast.
5. Ireland Votes “Yes”
Not all was bad news this year: Ireland voted 66 percent to 33 percent in favor of abortion rights, a historic advance for women in the traditionally Catholic country. This picture is slightly fish-eyed, which here gives a sense of the historic sweep of the event as it rushes at you. The three central women read left to right like a progression of reactions from relief to euphoria. Overall, it wonderfully expresses the weightless, heart-swelling moment of having made history.
6. The Face of ‘Family Separation’
This is, in my view, the single most consequential photo of the year. The image was so widely circulated so immediately, and has come to seem such a natural document of the awfulness on the border that it may be worth stating out loud what about its composition makes it so devastating: Because it centers our gaze on the young child, and sees things from her level, with mother and law enforcement cropped at the top of the frame, your lack of information as a viewer doubles the two-year-old’s lack of understanding of the world she has been plunged into—giving you, viscerally, the horror of “zero tolerance” family separation.
7. Trump Looks the Other Way
Well, there has to be one picture of Trump on this list, the most all-devouring media monster of the age, right? As has been said before, this photo of the US president with other world leaders, his attention wandering off as others contemplate a military flyover, is almost “too perfect” as a symbol of his antagonistic relationship to the rest of the world (the effect is only furthered, incidentally, by his flaming red tie in a sea of blues).
8. Blasey Ford Stands Up
The Brett Kavanaugh hearings are going to be a watershed, as momentous as the ’91 Clarence Thomas hearings—probably more so. This widely circulated portrait of Christine Blasey Ford being sworn in to give testimony is shot from below, which gives a sense of the monumental weight of the moment. It captures her with her eyes closed, as if steadying herself for what is to come. The most obvious formal flourish of the photo—the clock framed above her head, with the focus rendering it as a halo—is almost too much as a symbol of an ordinary person pressed into the spotlight of historical events.
9. Theresa May: Dancing Queen
As Britain lumbered towards the Brexit endgame, Theresa May entered the Conservative Party Conference in October to the tune of Abba’s Dancing Queen, dancing across the stage with very self-conscious awkwardness. Maybe you find the gesture endearing—or maybe you find it a bit too on-the-nose as an image of a shambolic British political class whose only move left is to grin and say, “this is going to be utter humiliation—and we’re just going to go with it anyway.”
10. California on Fire
The berserk fires that rampaged across California this fall took a fearsome human and environmental toll. At the same time, they can only seem a portent of things to come as the world rapidly heats, giving this image of a deserted Malibu home a prophetic charge. Swarmed by ashes and smoke, red embers frozen in the sky, the shot is framed by blazing palms—the symbol of the California good life. An image of affluence overcome by the power of nature, it says everything about the state of the climate change debate in the United States.
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