The troubles and triumphs that shaped 2021

National Geographic photographers documented pivotal moments as they unfolded – from the storming of the U.S. Capitol to the return of the Taliban.

By National Geographic Photographers
Published 9 Dec 2021, 14:58 GMT
"Stop the Steal" Rally
Police stand guard outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., during the “Stop the Steal” rally on January 6. Supporters of then-President Donald Trump gathered in the nation’s capital to protest President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the November 2020 election.
Photograph by Adam Ferguson

For many people, 2021 has been better than the previous year. Major advances in the battle against COVID-19 have allowed millions to emerge from lockdown and resume a semblance of normal life – however fleeting. Many adults returned to work, students went back to school, and family and friends reunited with cautious embraces and less fear of spreading infection.

The pandemic, of course, is far from over, and by other measures 2021 also has been filled with trauma. In the United States, chaos began to unfold during the first week of the year. On January 6, thousands of insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the counting of electoral votes from the 2020 presidential election. One police officer died from injuries inflicted by attackers, and some 140 others were seriously hurt during the melee, including stab wounds and cracked ribs.

A string of natural disasters—many fuelled by climate change—plagued countries around the world. Wildfires raged across portions of Europe, Siberia, Canada, and the western U.S. During a historic heat wave in August, wildfires on the Greek island of Evia burned homes and forced residents and tourists to flee. In the western U.S., wildfires in the Lake Tahoe basin charred a quarter million acres and destroyed more than 900 commercial and residential structures. Meanwhile, record-breaking rainfall in Germany caused extensive flooding across the region. And in Haiti, a magnitude 7.2 earthquake killed more than 2,200 people.

On the geopolitical front, hopes for a democratic future for Afghanistan were suddenly dashed as Taliban fighters retook the country by storm. In Ethiopia, civil war and drought spawned a humanitarian crisis that still continues.

But amid the tragedy and darkness, there were rays of hope. Pope Francis, in an historic gesture of reconciliation, undertook the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, seeking “the consolation of hearts and the healing of wounds” in a country deeply scarred by years of conflict.

Black Americans celebrated three milestones in their fight for racial justice: In Minneapolis, a jury found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty on all the counts over the death of George Floyd. In Richmond, Virginia, a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee—to many a symbol of the city’s racist past—was taken down after months of protests and legal battles. And in Tulsa, Oklahoma, crowds gathered on May 31 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, an event largely erased from history for decades.

Similarly, Native Americans made strides in their efforts to expose the brutal history of boarding schools set up to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children. After six years of lobbying, the skeletal remains of nine Lakota children who died in Pennsylvania more than a century ago were returned to South Dakota and laid to rest in their ancestral soil.

As these and other pivotal moments unfolded around the world, National Geographic photographers were on the scene to document the events that shaped our lives.

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