2021: A tale of survival and hope

It has been a rough year for many people globally, with Covid-19 affecting daily life. In photos chosen as a representation of the past 12 months, we find emotion and truth – and something more.

Horace, the Roman poet, once noted that "a poem is like a painting". Perhaps he will not mind if we give his words a slight modern twist and say "a photograph is like a poem". Its expression can charm us, its imagery hypnotise us, its intensity arrest us. Like the photograph itself, we go still and quiet for a while as we look.

We know the power of images because at year's end we often reach for them, shuffling them together in newspapers to create a sort of neat album for an untidy year. Like the poem, this process is personal.

In the photograph we see light, angle and framing. We look at shape, layers and the motion in the stillness. We discover emotion, truth and insight in a single frame. But, for senior executive photojournalist Neo Xiaobin and me, who went through over a thousand photographs to pick 21 images that represented 2021 for us, we also found something else.

Something symbolic, something to hang onto in a bleak year, something of humankind's distress but also of its fight, something that told a wider story. A tale of survival and hope.

One day the mask will be found in old handbags in the attic, a relic of another time. But in 2021, Covid-19 still regulated how we lived, where we went, whom we met.

Nations faltered, families reeled, funeral pyres raged. The year had the colour of ash. In a crematorium on the fringes of Bangalore, a man comforted a woman in distress. This year, maybe, we understood each other's pain a little better.

Family members of a Covid-19 victim mourning before his cremation at a crematorium ground in Bangalore, India, on May 13, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

Grief wore us down, but we endured, we waited, we held on. Resilience builds quietly. In Seattle, at an assisted living facility, Ms Yoshia Uomoto, 98, had not physically met her son, Mark, in over a year because of Covid-19 restrictions. Then, there he was at her doorway.

"Hi mom," he said.

In reply her joyous face said everything.

Ms Yoshia Uomoto reacting as her son Mark Uomoto and niece Gail Yamada surprise her with their first in-person visit in a year, after Covid-19 restrictions were lifted at an assisted living facility in Seattle in the US on March 30, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

Thousands of kilometres away, another old woman's face was a painting of anguish. As a wave of fire came sweeping behind Ms Ritsopi Panagiota's house in Evia, Greece, she lost sight of her husband as he ran to defend it with water.

Later, asked by a television station how she felt about this image appearing across the world, she said: "I am not interested in this thing. I'm interested in getting up one day and seeing everything as I knew it." We understand.

On the Greek island of Evia, wildfires resulting from the country’s worst drought in three decades approach the home of Ms Ritsopi Panagiota on Aug 8, 2021. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Suffering came in multiple forms. In Tanjong Pagar Road, a charred car stood as a grim memorial to five young lives lost and one act of jolting courage

Ms Raybe Oh Siew Huey, 26, ran into the fire to rescue her fiance, received burns to 80 per cent of her body, has undergone 32 operations and yet said: "If I could turn back time, I would do it again." In desperate hope, perhaps, that this time she could pull someone out.

The wreckage of the car waiting to be towed away in Tanjong Pagar Road. The BMW M4 coupe had crashed into the front of a shophouse and caught fire, killing all five occupants on Feb 13, 2021. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Ms Oh survived, so did Suzy Eshkuntana, six, extricated from the rubble in Gaza after seven hours. She was alive, but her mother and four of her siblings were gone. Late in the year, Pauline Boss released a book titled The Myth Of Closure and it reminded us that loss cannot be put in a box and stored away. It's just there, but so is hope and our instinct to keep going.

Rescuers carrying Suzy Eshkuntana after pulling her from the rubble of a building at the site of Israeli air strikes, in Gaza City on May 16, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

So people mourned but they also lived, they played, they protested, they cheered when travel opened between Malaysia and Singapore. Politicians stayed and new ones arrived. President Xi Jinping of China held a power-building meeting of the Communist Party elite, while Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob was sworn in as Malaysia's latest prime minister, the fourth in three years.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, anti-apartheid hero with a distinctive chuckle, died at 90 and the Earth felt like a less noble planet. Few humans, it might be said, challenged our conscience so powerfully. "If you are neutral in situations of injustice," he once said, "you have chosen the side of the oppressor."

Elsewhere we farewelled a fine James Bond and celebrated the Oscar of Nomadland's Chloe Zhao. We felt imprisoned, yet our sense of adventure would not be chained. Up there, in another world, Juno, both a spacecraft and the mythological wife of Jupiter, kept a camera's eye on her husband.

A JunoCam image showing two of Jupiter's large rotating storms, captured on Juno’s 38th perijove pass, on Nov 29, 2021. PHOTO: NASA

Survival was so ingrained in us that we had kits for it. But we also know survival demands struggle and the year was littered with it. People fought for so many things, against rioters at the US Capitol, for the survival of democracy, for justice, for equality.

And for other human beings.

A Catholic nun, Sister Ann Rose Nu Tawng, knelt before Myanmar's policemen and begged them not to shoot protesters. No one listened. But some people don't lose hope, they merely commit to the truth.

Sister Ann Rose Nu Tawng pleading with police not to harm protesters in Myitkyina in Myanmar's Kachin state on March 8, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

Journalists report even as they stand guard over the right to freedom of expression. Sometimes, as with Ms Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Mr Dmitry Muratov from Russia, they win the Nobel Peace Prize. Sometimes, as the Committee to Protect Journalists notes, they go to jail (293) or are killed (24).

Ms Maria Ressa, executive editor of online news site Rappler, speaking to the media at Manila's international airport on Dec 7, 2021, before she travelled to Oslo, Norway, for the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

The legendary photographer Sebastiao Salgado once said that "it's more important for a photographer to have very good shoes than to have a very good camera". A life jacket helps as well. In the Mediterranean Sea, under the searchlight of the moon, photographer Santi Palacios illuminated the uncertain life of Tunisian refugees.

In the first six months of 2021, according to the International Organisation for Migration, 1,146 people died attempting to reach Europe by sea. Still, people try, clinging to the idea of a better life, like the 17 Tunisians in a wooden boat looking for a home. Hope rocking on water.

A group of 17 Tunisians waiting for assistance near the Italian island of Lampedusa on board a precarious wooden boat at sea on July 25, 2021. PHOTO: AP

Photographers brave mud and bullets and their camera has no opinion. It speaks the objective language of Click. It shoots, we interpret. This year it saw ugliness (racism, violence, war, child labour) and yet also found little moments of pleasure.

The kneeling disbelief of Loh Kean Yew, whose World Championship badminton win spoke of an undaunted spirit. The glee of a Japanese cheer squad, ages 60-89, whose zest tells us, 'keep going, keep going'. The delight of a butterfly sitting on Naomi Osaka's face, like a kiss from nature to a young woman struggling with depression.

Singapore's Loh Kean Yew celebrating after beating India's Srikanth Kidambi in the men's singles final badminton match of the BWF World Championships in Huelva, Spain, on Dec 19, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

The struggle for survival in a mostly unequal, often bigoted and self-absorbed world was not just about staying alive but preserving the more profound parts of us. Dignity. Fairness. Empathy. Decency. In a studio in Bangladesh in March, we saw three minutes of it.

Ms Tashnuva Anan Shishir, who had endured bullying and suicide attempts, became her nation's first transgender television news presenter on International Women's Day. As her colleagues stood around her, photographer Munir Uz Zaman captured her movingly as her face lifted proudly towards the light. When it was over, she cried and they cheered.

Ms Tashnuva Anan Shishir (centre) made history as Bangladesh's first transgender television news anchor by reading a three-minute news segment in Dhaka on March 8, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

Photographer Neo and I sat for five hours to sift through the photos. It was, for me, a novel exercise, a meditation on craft, a rumination on loss, a study of beauty. In every photo we find our own meaning and I am uncertain which ones will stay with me. Perhaps two dramatically different pictures, from a city and a jungle, which spoke a common language we have somewhat forgotten. Of touch.

The first was a scene in a Singapore home caught by our photographer Jason Quah. A young medical officer, Captain (NS) (Dr) Shane Alexander Abucewicz-Tan, is resting his palm on the hand of Madam Lai, 93, who has just had her Covid-19 vaccine. He is on his haunches, she is in a wheelchair. Doctor and patient. Young and old. Strangers but fellow citizens. She a survivor, he a protector.

Medical officer, Captain (NS) Shane Tan comforting Madam Lai, 93, after she received the first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine in her home in Kim Keat Avenue on Sept 15. The national servicemen formed one of 20 home vaccination teams activated by the Singapore Armed Forces to contribute to Singapore’s home vaccination efforts. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

A continent away in the Congo, a similar contact between tenants of this planet. In 2007, ranger Andre Bauma met two-month-old gorilla, Ndakasi, after her mother was shot. He became her foster parent at the Senkwekwe Centre, which cares for orphaned mountain gorillas. This year, Ndakasi suffered from a long illness and five days before she died, a photograph was taken of her in Mr Bauma's arms.

"I am proud," said Mr  Bauma, "to have called Ndakasi my friend."

Orphaned mountain gorilla Ndakasi lying in the arms of her caregiver, Mr Andre Bauma, on Sept 21, 2021, shortly before her death. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

It was mostly a mean year, cruel for so many, exhausting, unfair, relentless, unforgiving. There is a picture outside Kabul airport of people looking on as a plane flies away without them. It has a feeling of abandonment to it.

A military transport plane flying away while Afghans, who cannot get into the airport, watch and wonder while stranded outside, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug 23, 2021. PHOTO: LOS ANGELES TIMES

But hope is a rope we clutch onto and some did get away. The all-women Zohra orchestra from Afghanistan first flew to Doha and then to Lisbon. A homeland lost, a sanctuary found. Some had to leave behind their instruments and yet their music survives. Maybe next year they will play again.

I would like to see that picture.

View the 21 pictures that define 2021.

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