My best pandemic shot: Guardian and Observer photographers' 2020

We asked the Guardian and Observer’s team of photographers to pick an image that represented something interesting about covering the pandemic in 2020. From heatwave swims to anti-racism demonstrations in the summer to lockdown imagery and individual tragedy, these images and the thoughts of the photographers form a very personal take on the experience of covering the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

People in swimwear on bridge
People in swimwear on bridge. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

Jill Mead

After weeks of lockdown and restrictions, swimming pools had just reopened. With booking ahead necessary, I knew I’d flounder. I’m a last-minute person. My friend invited me to go to Brighton so we could swim in the sea. Unfortunately, I was working. I put my camera bag in my child seat and followed my nose in sweltering heat heading east with no fixed route. It was truly joyful to encounter this group of friends diving like potential Olympians. On my way home well after dusk, I cycled underneath a lady watering her plants on a first-floor balcony and asked if she’d hose me down. “Happy to oblige,” she replied. “I usually soak people by accident.”

Crystal Palace Park walkers
People out enjoying the weather Crystal Palace Park. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

Martin Godwin

An avenue of trees in a south London park. Strolling, or sitting on park benches, under the trees – people, socially distancing, are enjoying the late autumn sunshine.

For me this photo is about the need for people to be among others, to see and be seen, to acknowledge others. Enjoying the so-called “simple” things in life, like a stroll in the park.

The low, late autumn, afternoon sun catches the leaves and they seem like jewels in the air. The photo is reminiscent of a Japanese print.

The photo is about the joy of small things.

Mat Whitecross in pool
Mat Whitecross in his garden pool. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

Sarah Lee

So many of my photographs from this year and lockdown seem to either have an absence of people (I’ve been shielding so all normal portraiture work has been very much affected) or have a sense of dislocation and absence. So I’ve decided to pick an image from one of the year’s rare bright moments.

This is from the summer when we could easily socialise, with social
distancing of course, in gardens and parks.

This is one of my closest friends, Mat Whitecross, in his garden. He’s a keen swimmer who was finding all the pools and ponds being closed in London tough. To his wife’s amusement, and slight alarm, he bought a “home swimming pool”. This picture makes it look larger and grander than it is it’s more a large, rickety paddling pool than a miniature lido. He then tethered himself with a bungee cord round his waist secured at one end to a tree. He’s able to swim as hard as he likes but goes nowhere.

There seemed to be a lockdown metaphor of sorts there, but most of all this is a memory of a really enjoyable afternoon of human togetherness. Mat’s wife, Golnar, and I were laughing at the green water (which looks more inviting in monochrome) since Mat hadn’t really paid attention to the chlorination aspect of a home pool. I climbed a step ladder and slightly precariously, but also safely distanced, hovered over the pool and took some shots.

There are others that are tighter that I like aesthetically, but this is the shot for me since it shows the cord and some of the workings of this Heath Robinson arrangement. Mat is suspended in the moment. He may not be swimming anywhere, but it’s still a worthwhile enterprise.

So much of this year has been about being isolated and apart form other people that I wanted to celebrate the carefully choreographed moments of joy and togetherness that seem all the more precious for being so much rarer than in more normal times.

Black Lives Matters protest
Black Lives Matters protest, London. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

Sean Smith

The photo was taken during the Black Lives Matter demonstration that had started outside the new American embassy in Nine Elms, London. The atmosphere was very positive and uplifting with lots of young people. After a couple of hours, the demonstration moved off to Parliament Square. These three friends for me seemed to encapsulate the optimism of the demo against the backdrop of the new luxury developments available to a few.

Mark Whitlie with coffin
Mark Whitlie, embalmer, at William Purves Funeral Directors. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Murdo MacLeod

The UK Covid death count exceeds 60,00 at the time of writing. Many of the rituals around death and funerals have had to change this year. For the bereaved, things have been difficult, with hurried and distanced farewells and only a few allowed at the burial or the cremation. Many undertakers such as William Purves Funeral Directors in Edinburgh have worked hard to humanise and dignify these occasions as much as possible within the pandemic guidelines. But staff have to be protected and special measures introduced.

Here Mark Whitlie, embalmer, places the embalmed body of a Covid-19 victim in a coffin. Covid-19 regulations mean he has to wear a respirator mask and robust PPE; previously he would only have needed scrubs and gloves.

Residents in Manchester clap
Residents in Manchester taking part in the clap for carers campaign. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Chris Thomond

They became a weekly ritual, but nobody really knew what the first Clap for Carers event would look like or how many people would take part. Arriving at the last second, I parked up on wasteland outside several apartment blocks overlooking Manchester city centre. At 7.59pm there was still no sign of imminent activity and a TV cameraman who had coincidentally picked the same vantage point surmised that we were wasting our time. Thankfully, as the nearby church bells chimed the hour, silhouetted figures appeared at windows and on balconies and their enthusiastic applause was interspersed with distant whoops, fireworks and even a supportive blast on the horn from the driver of a passing freight train.

Leah Bedward
Leah Bedward. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Alicia Canter

I’d been looking for women to photograph who were expecting during lockdown, and was introduced to Leah when she was eight months’ pregnant. When I visited her home in south London, I was looking for a strong portrait, but was blown away by her beautiful blue dress, showing off her bump perfectly. We chatted a lot; she was full of positive energy and we spoke about the magical power of women and home birth. After a shoot in her back garden I was packed up and ready to go when I noticed her doorway. She humoured me and allowed me one last shot. A lot of photography is about trust and patience, and hoping the person you meet is willing to give you the time you need. Leah did all that in spades. She had her little boy, Jett Heru, on 6 July.

Shopper wearing bunny ears
Bunny Ears on the streets in Crouch End. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Graeme Robertson

I returned to London from Scotland a few days before the lockdown and was asked by my editors to have a look around to see what the streets were like. I travelled all over east and north London. The streets were eerily quiet, parks empty, the odd person carrying a shopping bag on sidestreets and a few cars on the roads. It was something I had never experienced in my 20 years in London – quiet ! It was like one of those post-apocalypse films. Then out of the blue appeared a small group of people all wearing bunny ears and masks. They saw me straight away. We smiled at one another though our masks and carried on. It made me think positively all day. I kept thinking about that family – did they take the ears off when they got home, or are they still wearing them, laughing and enjoying their day?

Lone figure in City of London
A lone figure makes his way through the City of London. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

Andy Hall

I do a lot of street photography of the City of London’s Square Mile and I took this picture at lunch hour in the Leadenhall area by the Lloyds and Gherkin buildings, where the square would usually be bustling with office workers. I wanted to capture the dystopian feel of the deserted City; the quiet desperation that the pandemic is creating in this once dynamic financial centre as its workers continue to stay away, and the myriad businesses that supported it start to close down.

I saw this lone figure walking towards me, so I positioned myself hoping he would walk down one of those little rivers of light that spread out over the empty square, which luckily he did, giving my photo more balance and composition. As I looked through the viewfinder, a lorry suddenly came into view with the giant word “PANIC” written on it. A moment of luck, as it seemed to encapsulate what I wanted to convey about the pandemic – how our lives have been put on hold as we all wait in quiet panic about what to do next.

Black Lives Matter protest
Black Lives Matter protest in Whitehall. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Antonio Olmos

2020 was a very sad year for most of us, but as a photojournalist it was also a very visually interesting year. So much of the year was spent photographing the absence of things. So when Black Lives Matter burst on to the scene, it gave 2020 a breath of life in a year filled with death and illness.

People from all walks of life were angry enough about the racism in our society to defy the Covid restrictions on large gatherings. Almost all the protesters wore masks as they expressed their anger. To me, 2020 was both about Covid and Black Lives Matter, and this image encapsulates both.

I like that the photo shows young people protesting and wearing masks. The young have had their year disrupted more than most with the closing down of schools and universities, but they were also at the forefront of the BLM Protests.

Young people are always a source of hope. I spent most of the day as BLM marched from the US embassy to Whitehall taking not very good photos of people marching. It was only when everyone arrived at Whitehall that my eyes lit up: rows and rows of protesters resting on the many walls that front the government buildings of Whitehall. Tired from the march but still holding their signs of defiance while still very aware of the pandemic.

People gathered at window
Outside. Photograph: T Pengilley

T Pengilley

Outside became an obsession for us during our first period of confinement, which began before the official UK lockdown, as we were too sick with Covid to leave the house. Those dreadful dark days were bathed in the most beautiful sunshine, and we spent many hours slumped at the windowsill, gazing outside and longing to rejoin life.

Amusement arcade hoarding
An amusement arcade hoarding in Cleethorpes, North Lincolnshire. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

Richard Saker

As a photographer, the pandemic meant changing the way I worked and reacting to fast-changing events. It has felt more important than ever to record everyday life during these turbulent and unprecedented times.

I only moved to the north of England recently, so visiting new towns and seeing them through fresh eyes has been both interesting and liberating. Just walking the streets in search of images reminded me of when I was a teenager first taking up photography.

In June, I found myself on a Saturday afternoon in Cleethorpes to cover a story for the newspaper. I had never been to Cleethorpes before, so as with a lot of shoots this year I wanted to explore the town a little more and dig a little deeper. To my surprise, on that baking hot day, I found a Black Lives Matter demo unfolding on the beach which I got involved with, next to which was a counter protest designed to disrupt the demo. The mostly young people were shouting down a seemingly older generation of embittered and hostile voices, and it was refreshing and encouraging to see such solidarity and strength in those so young.

As I walked back along the seafront to my car, I stumbled across the “Fantasy World” billboard outside an amusement arcade. Intrigued, I waited in position for some time for passersby, but they were few and far between. Just as I was about to leave, these two girls strolled past. I shot two or three frames and this is my favourite.

The words “Fantasy World” seemed such a far cry from the current realities of life for young people growing up, and who are fighting against injustice in the world. For me there is something about the unison of the girls’ stride that makes it work and the fact that they look so similar in dress I now wonder whether perhaps they may be sisters or twins.

As a father to a daughter similar in age to these two girls, I have seen at first hand how difficult this pandemic has been for young people. Schools were closed at the time I took this picture, and there was no clear sign of when they would reopen. Seeing this image takes me straight back to that day and the voices of those young people on the beach; they have endured so much recently, but they will prevail and their voices will be heard.

Students behind a window
Sonja, 18, Rhianna, 18, and Tara, 18 in Murano Street halls of residence. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer

Katherine Anne Rose

In September there was a serious outbreak of the virus among new university students in Glasgow. The freshers had moved into their student halls and it had spread almost immediately. Of course it had! The best way to spread a virus is to put 10 people who don’t know each other in a house together together. Especially if they aren’t yet used to cleaning their own bathrooms and kitchens.

I was asked to visit some of the student halls and take portraits of some of the people who had tested positive. The only way to do this was to shoot them through their bedroom windows.

One girl at Murano Street student halls who had been interviewed for the article didn’t want to be photographed, but put me in touch with some friends who lived on the ground floor. It was surreal. I called one of the girls on the phone and scanned the windows of this block of flats for her.

After an initial introduction on the line, I started to take a few pictures. I didn’t take many. In the background on the phone I could hear excited laughing and running around: “Someone from the paper is here!” It was just like how you might imagine life in student halls. It looked on the surface like they weren’t feeling particularly ill or frightened.

They were right beside me behind that window – only a metre or two away. They said: “We can open the window if you like.” I said “No, that’s OK!” What a crazy suggestion. I think their whole flat had tested positive.

They were asking: “What do you want us to do?” And they were pretending to cry and be sad and locked up. Then they would laugh at themselves and each other. I loved those shots of them laughing. I wanted those shots to be used. For me it was so hopeful.

I know that time for them will have been scary and alien and challenging, but it wasn’t the image of what you would imagine having the virus to be. I knew that it was best to be frightened of the virus to try to protect myself, my family and others, but in this moment they seemed brave and courageous. It made me think about the invincibility you feel at that age, and how you don’t realise it until you get older.

I thought to myself, ‘When they’ve recovered and that whole building has had coronavirus and a two-week isolation together, they’re going to feel like superheroes.’

Members of the Haredi Jewish community
Members of the Haredi Jewish community in Stamford Hill. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

David Levene

This was one of many photographs I took of the Haredi Jewish community in Stamford Hill davening (praying) in their front and back gardens, as part of a wide-ranging photo-essay about religion in the UK during the coronavirus lockdown. Jewish law requires a minyan (a quorum of 10 men over the age of 13) in order to conduct daily prayer services, and because all places of worship were closed to the public, worshippers instead gathered across adjacent gardens and driveways in order to safely form a minyan.

The set-ups became more and more elaborate as time went on, incorporating makeshift reading platforms (bimah) and cabinets to house holy scrolls (Torah), effectively creating outdoor synagogues that allowed full religious services to take place.

Cece in a mask
Cece during a Black Lives Matter protest in London. Photograph: Anselm Ebulue/The Guardian

Anselm Ebulue

I attended a Black Lives Matter protest in Parliament Square following the death of George Floyd, where I photographed Cece. We were still in the throes of the first lockdown, so seeing and being around so many people felt bizarre, but there was a charged and weighty atmosphere that everyone present seemed to share. I remember the sense of inevitable exhaustion in my conversations I had that day. Cece said she was tired of being tired, but she also saw optimism in the number of people who had turned up and encouragement in that solidarity.

Neighbours outside house
Elizabeth and Jo, Sussan and Stuart, Sian and Tom and Dipak in Evering Road, Hackney. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi

Christian Sinibaldi

Lockdown presented a unique opportunity. I couldn’t do my usual work, but I could turn my camera on to my own community. Evering Road is a mile-long road in the heart of Hackney where I have lived for more than eight years, without ever truly knowing those around me. I started documenting my neighbours from a safe distance, mostly for my personal sanity, but in talking to the people of Evering Road, I began to uncover a consoling web of human stories, small gestures and common threads. One of the few positives of this pandemic has been how communities have pulled together. I saw evidence of this every time I stepped out of my front door.

Pictured here are Elizabeth and Jo, Sussan and Stuart, Sian and Tom and Dipak. Elizabeth says: “We moved into our flat in April 2007, just after the house had been converted into flats. Sussan and Stuart have also lived here since then. It’s always been a friendly house and we’ve had some great parties in Sussan’s garden. Sian and Tom moved into the first floor a few years ago and we all get along really well. When Dipak moved into the basement, he was surprised that we invited him up for neighbourly nibbles and said that he had never experienced that sort of neighbourliness before.

“If anything, the lockdown has brought us together more. It’s turned into a lovely social hub. Olive, our cockapoo, is the best thing in our life. We both work in hospitals and Jo brought the virus home quite early on. We think we have both had it and recovered, which made us feel a bit more relaxed. We hope we can hold on to the positives that have come along with the lockdown. Decreased traffic, pollution and airplanes, but more time for each other as neighbours.”


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