Books: a new life for 2010 photos

In the new edition of Our World Now, Reuters’ annual album of global events, the agency presents more of its best pictures -- and some of the stories behind them. Maryann Bird picks her favourites.

Our World Now 4
Thames & Hudson, 2011

News photography is often “dictated by the need to ‘match’ images to information”
, but once a year Reuters editors and photographers get to separate their pictures from words and enjoy “the rare liberty of entering world events through the impact of images”, says Ayperi Karabuda Ecer, vice president for pictures at the world’s largest information agency. 

In producing the fourth volume in its stunning photographic series Our World Now, covering the year 2010, Reuters again invites the world to look back on itself, to view the variety of the past year’s events through some of the most compelling of the half-million images captured by 600 photographers around the world.

Like its predecessors, the new volume “gives our pictures a second life”, in Ecer’s words, while still helping to shape people’s “vision of events … creating emotions, opinions and memories”. Many of the year’s visual highlights — whether reflecting sadness or hope, disaster or joy — were environment-related, and it is those that chinadialogue is most concerned with.

To readers who know the previous books, the format of Our World Now 4 will be familiar. The book is divided into quarters of the year and again includes “Witness” sections, a feature introduced in the 2008 volume. “Witness” provides six photographers with space for a photo-essay, in which they focus visually on a single topic and include, in their own words, some of the background to their assignment and experience in reporting it.

In a new twist in the latest volume, 14 of the book’s 352 colour illustrations are highlighted in the introduction, with short reflections by photographers who took a chance to capture a dramatic moment. The images are snatched, for example, in the seconds before bullets begin to fly, or after a long and patient wait.

One of the book’s more poignant pictures, by the Shanghai-based photojournalist Carlos Barria, shows two Haitian children – after the devastating earthquake of January 2010 – negotiating a large puddle at a makeshift camp in the vast shantytown of Cité Soleil.

“I saw two kids helping each other to cross a muddy puddle while dark clouds were rolling over the capital”, Port-au-Prince, Barria writes. “The image stuck with me because it seemed like a picture of daily life, albeit a daily life eked out amid the most precarious of conditions.”

Such quotidian instability is reflected throughout the book, as in the unique yet still familiar images of flooding triggered by torrential rains – in eastern Pakistan, in south-central Peru, in western France and eastern Germany. Fire, too, makes its appearance, in the flames and heavy smoke from the wave of blazes that swept through central Russian forests and peatlands, aggravated by strong winds, record temperatures and the worst drought in decades. A particularly ghostly photo by Sergei Karpukhin shows visitors in an eerily lit Red Square as Moscow choked on smoke from the summer wildfires.

Fire and ash came from the beneath the ground and from the sky, too, in 2010. The spectacular eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland wreaked havoc for farmers, triggered a glacial flood that wiped out roads and bridges and inflicted massive disruption to European air travel. With skill and patience (and some luck), Lucas Jackson recorded the geological drama: the fireworks of the spewing lava, volcanic lightning streaking across the dark sky and a magical shot of the Northern Lights putting on their own display as the fiery lava illuminates the ash plume from below.

“I feel lucky,” Jackson writes, “to have been able to document the eruption so others could share in the amazement – watching Mother Nature negate centuries of human technology and progress with one of the most beautiful sights on earth.”

Deadly earthquakes again featured in the seismic changes of 2010: in Yushu county — in China’s Qinghai province – and along Chile’s central coast. Reuters photographers reflected the disasters in two particularly thought-provoking pictures, one of Tibetan monks sitting in a snowy Gyêgu mountain field, praying for the quake victims, and another of a truck full of new coffins outside a morgue in the city of Constituciόn, ready to receive the bodies of Chileans who perished.

Better news for Chile – and, indeed, the world – came months later when potential disaster was transformed into what, arguably, was the good-news story of the year. After being trapped 700 metres below ground for over two months, 33 miners were hoisted up, one by one, before the eyes of the world. Before then, Ivan Alvarado recorded life at “Camp Hope”, near Copiapό in the Atacama Desert, as families, rescue teams and journalists waited in anticipation for weeks. Alvarado’s stark photo of the grim face of a shirtless, helmeted miner – seen on a computer screen in the black desert night – appears an unlikely portent of the joy that would eventually come.

In the quest for the planet’s resources, the year brought catastrophe in the form of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest such environmental disaster in US history. For three months, oil gushed into the gulf after a blowout on the offshore drilling rig; the explosion killed 11 men and vastly damaged marine and wildlife habitats as well as the region’s fishing and tourism industries.

Brian Snyder’s aerial view of three American women sunbathing on a sandy Alabama beach captures the sometimes surreal nature of the disaster. Just in front of the women, where the gulf waters lap at the shore of Dauphin Island (known for its bird sanctuaries), stands a wall of hay bales, set to absorb any oil that might wash ashore. “There was talk about the various technologies used to protect beaches,” Snyder writes, “and I was struck by the low-tech use of hay.”

A toxic spill of another kind struck Hungarian villages west of Budapest, when a caustic-waste reservoir burst at an alumina factory. After a particularly wet summer, the waste from red mud lakes swept through several localities, killing at least nine people, before reaching the river Danube. Bernadett Szabo’s photo of shovels sitting in the alkaline sludge in Devecser speaks to the overwhelming nature of the toxic torrent.

Apart from the Yushu earthquake, Chinese environmental stories are not much in evidence in Our World Now 4, unfortunately. But three images reflect the country’s still-growing wealth and global influence. From above, Carlos Barria framed a tennis court in Shanghai — lit for a night match — with high-rise buildings, while Sheng Li found children decorating cakes during a weekend cooking course in Shenyang, Liaoning province. And as China became the first developing nation to host the World Expo, Aly Song marked the milestone in a playful picture-of-picture-taking at the exposition’s Danish pavilion.

Globally last year, though, disasters triggered by sudden-onset natural hazards forced more than 42 million people were forced to flee, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC). That is roughly the population of Argentina. The 2010 figure, an IDMC study found, was higher than those for the preceding two years because of massive floods in China and Pakistan – which displaced 15 million and 11 million people, respectively — as well as the quakes in Chile and Haiti. Overall, Asia was the worst-affected region.

Figures for the current year may prove equally grim, given the onslaught of natural disasters so far, including the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the months of drought and then severe flooding in China and the deadliest US tornado season in six decades. Speaking recently at a climate change and displacement conference in Oslo, the UN high commissioner for refugees, Antόnio Guterres, called climate-related displacement “the defining challenge of our times”.

Criticising the international community for lacking the political will to reduce the pace of climate change, according to the Associated Press, Guterres noted: “There is increasing evidence to suggest that natural disasters are growing in frequency and intensity and that this is linked to the longer-term process of climate change.”

No doubt next year’s version of Our World Now will again feature heartbreaking (yet photographically brilliant) images of the effects wrought by climate change and other environmental problems. For now, though, a final note of praise for another photo in the current edition: the picture that opens the Reuters slideshow accompanying this review and which is itself a word of warning from climate campaigners. Gerardo Garcia’s image, taken at Cancún’s Gaviota Azul beach during last December’s UN climate summit, shows cardboard versions of many of the world’s best-known monuments sinking – symbolically for the time being — into a warming sea.


Maryann Bird is associate editor of chinadialogue.