Photo stories that could only have happened in 2020

If one thing is certain, it's this: every photographer had a unique story to tell in 2020.
A topless man sitting in a bath wearing clown make-up.

Out of lockdown comes quirky photo projects. Canon Ambassador Nanna Heitmann's story about a quarantined clown was shot in her grandmother's flat in Moscow, where her and a friend spent the first weeks of lockdown trying to make sense of their new reality. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm, 1/125 sec, f/2.8 and ISO2500. © Nanna Heitmann

We don't yet know what 2021 will bring, but we do know one thing – every photographer has had a unique story to tell in the year that went by.

Unlike most years, every genre of photography was affected by a single global event: Covid-19 compelled photographers across the world to rethink the way they work and this led to an array of projects that could only have happened in 2020. From quirky personal projects inspired by unexpected confinement to those made out of necessity due to changes in the commercial landscape and a cultural calendar altered beyond recognition.

Here are five photo stories that all, in different ways, epitomise the times in which we live.

A man in a red waistcoat standing on a bed. A chandelier casts a shadow over the room.

During the first weeks of lockdown in Moscow, Russia, people were only allowed to go to their nearest supermarket. If they tried to get on the metro without a QR code granting special permission, doors wouldn't open. Nanna and Andrey used the surroundings they found themselves in to create their own story of a quarantined clown. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm, 1/160 sec, f/2.8 and ISO1250. © Nanna Heitmann

1. Clowning around in Moscow

What do you get if you place a clown without an audience and a documentary photographer with no work in the confines of a Moscow apartment? A surreal and fantastical photography project that reflects the equally surreal feeling that Canon Ambassador and Magnum photographer Nanna Heitmann and her friend Andrey were left with when quarantine was first imposed on the Russian capital in March 2020.

It was unclear whether journalists had permission to move around in the city, and clowns – her friend's profession – certainly didn't have permission or any jobs to go to. "I'd been staying in touch with my colleagues at Magnum and everyone was sharing their work and thoughts on how to photograph this historic moment," says Nanna. "That's what inspired me to photograph Andrey the quarantined clown as he juggled on the rooftop, ate canned food and played with his puppets. We were trying to make sense of the situation and build an escape."

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A brown bear and her four cubs walking through a forest.

A family of Marsican brown bears in the Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park in the Apennine mountains in Italy. The endangered animals were spotted by hikers, who flocked to the area to escape lockdown. © Bruno D'Amicis

A crowd of photographers at the side of a road in a rural town.

Photographers gathered near the town of Villalago to photograph the endangered bears. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 70mm, 1/40 sec, f/5.6 and ISO200. © Bruno D'Amicis

2. Apennine paparazzi

Few people associate Italy with bears, and up until the summer of 2020, not many were aware that a critically endangered species, with less than 50 members left, could be found in the Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park in the Apennine mountains. But with airports closed and people heading out into nature like never before, a Marsican brown bear family suddenly became a bit of a tourist attraction. Canon Ambassador and wildlife photographer Bruno D'Amicis documented how the usually serene and quiet mountains were suddenly filled with photographers wearing face masks, all pointing their telephoto lenses at a bear and her four cubs.

"People want to witness nature but without keeping the right distance there's a risk of making the bear too comfortable with humans, meaning it might get too close and endanger itself and others," says Bruno. "On the plus side, the increased awareness has sparked an interest in the conservation of the bear."

3. The power of perspective

What on earth are these men doing in the three photographs at the start of Canon Ambassador Gulshan Khan's video? You'll find the answer if you watch the three-minute clip to the end, but this intriguing and thought-provoking piece would never have seen the light of day had it not been for the strange situation the South African photojournalist found herself in a few months into 2020.

"My plan for 2020 was to move away from news coverage and do more documentary work, but when the pandemic broke out, it was difficult to go on trips and complete projects," says Gulshan.

"Instead, I looked back at my archive and found new meanings in old photographs." Using three photographs she had taken of a row of men leaning against a fence in the township of Soweto, she created a reflective video in which she shares the new insights she gained about society by looking at a photograph shot in the past.

She created the video for the prestigious Joop Swart Masterclass, which this year had 'Reset' as its theme. "It really made me think. We produce so much, normally there's no time to reflect," she says. "And it's by looking back and reflecting that we notice patterns: what has changed and what still needs to change. I really hope that everything that happened in 2020 wasn't in vain – that it will help us think and reflect in 2021."

A mother and her son posing for a portrait behind a glass door.

Danish-Colombian photojournalist Nikolai Linares worked on a personal project during lockdown – The Quarantined. Jenni, 34, tested positive for Covid-19 after a skiing holiday in Ischgl, Austria, and self-isolated with her nine-year-old son, Marco. She has two other sons aged three and four who she only saw on FaceTime during her quarantine. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 41mm, 1/250 sec, f/4 and ISO160. © Nikolai Linares

4. Portraits – 2020 style

Normally he likes to get up close to the sweaty faces of boxers who've just lost a match or to jump into the bullfighting ring to capture the passion of 12-year-old trainee matadors, but this year, Danish-Colombian photojournalist Nikolai Linares had to think of different ways to shoot the striking portraits and reportages for which he's become known.

With free time on his hands and a shortage of sports and events to photograph, the Canon Ambassador started a personal project, The Quarantined, taking socially distanced, but no less striking portraits of people with Covid-19 symptoms who were self-isolating in their homes. "The images are shot through the windows of their houses, illustrating how, in lockdown, the quarantined are simultaneously close at hand yet out of reach," says Nikolai.

The reportage was published in a Danish newspaper, and Nikolai's freelance work is starting to pick up again. "I think work wise things will remain as they are [with certain restrictions] for a long while, but I don't think we'll go into another big lockdown," he says.

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A crowd in front of a building in Taiwan displaying the word 'zero', which relates to the number of Covid-19 cases recorded that day.

A small crowd – a rare sight in many countries at the time – gathered in front of a sign announcing that Taiwan had recorded another day of zero cases on 26 April, 2020. Taken on a Canon EOS 70D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 90D) with a Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens at 18mm, 1/160 sec, f/3.5 and ISO3200. © Jérôme Gence

5. Working remotely – the photographer's edition

In March 2020, Canon Ambassador Jérôme Gence was stuck in Paris during lockdown after his flights to Taiwan – where he was due to shoot a documentary project – were cancelled, but he didn't let that get in the way of doing his job. Adapting to extreme circumstances, Jérôme asked his photography assistant in Taiwan, Chi-Hui Lin, to attach a smartphone to her Canon EOS 70D. Jérôme would guide her as she moved around Taipei, telling her what to capture and where to position herself to frame the shots he wanted to take. That way, he was able to document how life continued as usual in the Taiwanese capital with people on public transport, in cafes and on beaches at a time when many other countries were experiencing restrictions of some form due to the pandemic. The resulting reportage was published in Le Monde newspaper.

"I asked myself how human skills and technology could be brought together to help me tell stories that matter while being confined," says Jérôme. A web analyst as well as a photographer, his mission is to explore the relationship between humans and digital technology. He will do doubt continue to push the boundaries of how we use cameras in 2021.

Kathrine Anker

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