Our top photos from 2020: Reflections on resilience

On a wall inside a small storage room a person looks at the various greeting cards he and his father have received from their clients over the years.
December 30, 2020 • UPDATED January 06, 2021

This year has widely been described as unprecedented, and with good reason. The events of 2020 have challenged us in unexpected ways. COVID‑19 has of course changed how almost everything is done, and Mercy Corps’ work is no exception. Our efforts have never been more crucial, nor our obstacles more formidable. Through all the challenges, we were still able to reach nearly 37 million people in more than 40 countries with our programmes — an incredible accomplishment that reinforces how proud I am to work here.

The field of photography was not immune to the changes around us. Like every year, I set out in January to document our work around the world. My first trip was to the Bahamas, where Mercy Corps was still helping in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian. I was working on assignment in Indonesia in March when COVID‑19 broke out in full. I was travelling with a writer at that time, and we were checking the news daily. Our return flights to the U.S. kept getting changed and canceled, and we were unsure if we would even be able to get home. Fortunately by mid-March we secured a flight, making a layover at the emptiest Tokyo airport I have ever seen. We have been locked down at home ever since.

Photography is the lifeblood of our storytelling — a tangible way to share our work with the world. Mercy Corps is fortunate that we can always count on our talented global staff to document our programmes. The travel restrictions this year meant that team members played a crucial role in telling the story of our work and the millions of people it supports. A host of talented, locally-based freelance photographers have also helped to fill in the gaps.

Below are our top ten photos from 2020. They are in chronological order, so you can see how COVID‑19 worked its way into our view of the world over the course of the year. Two themes really strike me about this year's photos: how quickly we are able to adapt and innovate and how interconnected we all are.

A driver’s commitment to community

Bahamian working with a water tender truck.
Freeport, Bahamas, January 2020, Photo: Ezra Millstein

On a hot day in January, Keith volunteered to deliver potable water to communities on Grand Bahama, as he had done every day for five months after Hurricane Dorian. I met him as he drove his truck up to a water station. He carefully unwinded this green hose and connected the 5,900 litre bladder full of fresh water to refill the supply. He distributed water to 10 sites around Freeport daily. 4,000 people per week benefitted from the water. While Mercy Corps had never worked in the Bahamas before, after the storm we quickly adapted to partner with Mission Resolve Foundation to install two reverse osmosis water purifiers. These were handed over to the local utility companies in August 2020, ensuring that Bahamians will have clean water solutions in the event of future storms.

After talking with Keith, I wanted to show how hard he was working. As I knelt down to get this shot, shooting upwards to lend a heroic perspective, I tried to line up the sun just behind the hose to get the starburst effect. The shape of the hose also draws the eye in this image, roughly imitating the “golden ratio,” a centuries-old tool used by artists to create beauty and balance in their compositions.

An unforgettable journey to safety

Syrians fleeing violence toward camps in northwest syria sit in traffic on a clogged road.
Northwestern Syria, January 2020, Photo: Qusai

Qusai, a freelance photographer, sent us this shot he took as he was fleeing violence in Northwestern Syria. This image demonstrates the scale of the displacement happening at that time, which Mercy Corps responded to. Here is his recollection of that time:

"I was among the displaced in that caravan when I was documenting this heinous crime against civilians. When my camera drone began to rise a little, the tragedy started to become more apparent. I saw an endless convoy of cars on the road trying to flee the hell of war. It came to my mind that all these people do not know where they are going. They just escaped death, not knowing where [to go].

“The weather was freezing, especially for children and the elderly, as most of them had open cars. You see children carrying school bags, playing with each other, ignorant of what awaits them [at] the camps and the difficulty of their life. Perhaps they thought it was a picnic or a trip in the spring vacation that they used to spend with their families at that time.

“Despite the pain, I like this picture. It will never be erased from my memory or from the memory of many who saw it. It will remain the witness to what happened."

Since March 2020, Mercy Corps has reached more than 930,000 people across Northwest Syria with urgently needed life-saving and life-sustaining support.

A mother’s strength

Antoinette in democratic republic of congo
Beni, North Kivu, DRC, January 2020, Photo: Olivia Acland

Antoinette participated in an innovative Mercy Corps cash-for-work programme. Mercy Corps was the first organisation to pilot cash-for-work programming, which enables people to earn life-sustaining income while working to get their own community back on its feet after a crisis.

Olivia, a freelance photographer based in DRC, shared these words about this photo: 

“Antoinette had fled violence whilst heavily pregnant. She had given birth in a small room at the back of the village chief's house. He had taken her in, and she was living at his place. I was so impressed by Antoinette's calm, kind air. She was living in the toughest circumstances but was remarkably positive. She was totally in love with her baby, Sarah, and it was a pleasure to photograph her holding the baby with this surprisingly serene look on her face. I spent quite a lot of time with her and she was very relaxed in front of the camera.”

Destruction and determination

Piva visits a destroyed house in indonesia
Susukan, Java, Indonesia, February 2020, Photo: Ezra Millstein

Mercy Corps’ Piva Bell walks through a damaged house in Western Java. In January 2020, heavy rain engorged a nearby river, causing multiple flash floods and slow-onset flooding that swept through several communities. Water and mud were ceiling-high in places, destroying structures, wiping away belongings and sending families fleeing. Mercy Corps responded quickly, providing emergency kits to the most vulnerable people, and installing water points to prevent the community from relying on the poor-quality river water to meet their daily needs.

I like the way this photo is framed through the damaged doorway, as well as the strong colours and softened light coming through the hole in the roof. What I remember most about this moment was walking into the house, squelching through the foot-deep mud, and watching my boot disappear into the muck.

Knowing her history, a girl finds her path forward

A young person sits at a table with their hands together.
Zaatari, Jordan, March 2020, Photo: Cathy Cheney

In Dreamland, Mercy Corps’ community centre in Za’atari refugee camp, children ages 7-12 learn about their Syrian culture and traditions. Many of the children in the camp only know a war-torn Syria. Through understanding more of the country's history, they create a connection with their homeland that provides a bond to older family members and a source of pride. Since 2012, Dreamland has been providing a safe space for both the young and old to learn new skills, develop positive relationships, rebuild a sense of identity and regain hope. The brightness in this girl's eyes conveys that feeling of hope for the future.

Cathy, a freelance photographer based in Portland, USA, says, “It is hard for me to find the words, and I let my photographs tell the story. This young girl conveys it all to me, you can see the joy. I see the safety of the children and know what this will do for their futures. It almost brought me to tears.”

Despite unrelenting challenges, a community persists

Niger community members interacting during cash distributions.
Tillabéri, Niger, May 2020, Photo: Mariama Souley

Residents of Tillabéri received unconditional cash grants at a distribution in May. This was one of the first times we saw the impact of COVID‑19 reflected in our photography, as this distribution was quickly adapted in response to the pandemic. Mandatory face masks, hand washing and social distancing were some of the measures that were developed to protect the community and our team. In early May, Mercy Corps reached over 2,300 vulnerable people in Niger with the goal of meeting their immediate nutritional needs and strengthening their long-term food security.

This colourful photo shows the dedication of our staff in Niger and their commitment to serving our programme participants.

A lesson on keeping students healthy

School children sit study at their desks while wearing face masks.
Mogadishu, Somalia, August 2020, Photo: Mohamed Khalif

Schools were initially shut down in Somalia in response to COVID‑19. By August, the Ministry of Education provided guidelines and roadmaps for the reopening of schools like this one. Mercy Corps helped this reopening with support packages which included soap, hygiene kits, radios for remote learning and information on how to prevent the spread of COVID‑19.

Nasro (front right, 15) said, “Everyone is now aware of the massive risks of COVID‑19. Even though it seems to be slowing down, we are keeping our distance as much as possible, extensively washing our hands, and wearing masks during class.”

In addition to capturing a unique time in Somalia, the bright contrasting colours and depth draws us into the frame.

Connecting harvests to hungry families

Two mercy corps employees load a truck with food.
Maunabo, Puerto Rico, August 2020, Photo: Alejandro Granadillo

Mercy Corps partnered with a local farmers’ group in Puerto Rico to distribute boxes of agricultural products. Together, we addressed the needs of families facing food shortages and local farmers struggling to sell their harvests, all severely affected by the COVID‑19 pandemic.

Alejandro is a freelance photographer based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. His image of César Ramirez, Senior Agronomist at Mercy Corps, is colourful, full of action and nicely framed between the sloping arches. Alejandro says, “In August, a couple of weeks after Hurricane Isaías hit Puerto Rico, I had the opportunity to accompany Mercy Corps in delivering donations in the Maunabo community. César's work … was extraordinary. Not only was the activity successfully carried out, but this gesture, small as it may seem, brought relief and joy to people who needed it so badly.”

A young woman opens new possibilities for her family

Kheira in kenya
Moyale, Kenya, September 2020, Photo: Patrick Meinhardt

Kheira, 19, has never gone to school and married in 2019. She looks after her father’s livestock and works in the house. Like many pastoralists, she’s always on the move. She joined a Mercy Corps girls group in June 2020. This innovative programme equips participants with literacy and numeracy, while also teaching reproductive health, nutrition, financial literacy and business skills.

Patrick is a freelance photographer based in Nairobi, Kenya. His image has beautiful light, and Kherira’s eye contact makes a strong connection with the viewer. He says, “One of the things that caught my attention from that image (and the story we were doing in northern Kenya) was how young these girls were, yet most of them had children already and big responsibilities within their families. I think she was the only one in that room that was with her baby, so we spoke to her first. As for the image itself, I liked the balance between the orange and the different shades of blue.”

A brighter future for a small-business owner

On a wall inside a small storage room a person looks at the various greeting cards he and his father have received from their clients over the years.
Portland, Oregon, United States, October 2020, Photo: Ezra Millstein

H Jackson looks at the various greeting cards he and his father Lowell have received from clients over the years, on a wall inside their small storage room. They operate the Jackson Shine Co. shoeshine stand at Portland International Airport. In early 2020, Jackson Shine Co. was going well, with a steady and dedicated clientele of business travellers from around the country, until the pandemic hit and wiped out air travel. Even now, they estimate that air traffic through the Portland airport is down 70% from pre-pandemic levels. H and his family received a $5,000 grant from Mercy Corps Northwest to help their business make it through the pandemic, and is wearing a mask that was donated through a partnership with Cotopaxi.

I like the way H’s reflection is framed in the mirror that sits among the personal, meaningful cards, which all show the strong connection between his business and the community. H and his family were wonderful to photograph and interview. I can’t wait to get back on the road soon so I can stop by to see them, and get my shoes shined on my way through the airport.