Books: picturing 2008, a year of seismic change

In the second volume of Reuters’ Our World Now series, photojournalists sum up an extraordinary 12 months in stunning images (and some short essays). Maryann Bird finds it engrossing.
Reuters: Our World Now 2
Thames & Hudson, 2009


“Photography cannot explain the world, but it can do something extraordinary to inform you whilst appealing to your emotions,” says Ayperi Karabuda Ecer, vice president of pictures for the Reuters news agency. Indeed, the power of photographic images to surprise, delight, enlighten and question is unique, even in an informationally overloaded world. At Reuters, she notes, “we seek to provide ‘knowledge to act’. One can argue that no significant decision can be made without emotion, and that emotion is key for a story to reach out to its audience.”

In the just-published Our World Now 2, 200 Reuters photographers of 60 nationalities have documented 2008, an extraordinary year by any standards. Like they have done previously, in both their daily output for the news media and in the first volume of Our World Now, the agency’s photographers have informed their global audience while appealing to a wide range of emotions.

“Seismic shifts have been reshaping our world in this new millennium,” says the book’s introduction. And as the events of 2008 unfolded around the earth, the photographers were there, witnessing them so that we can, too. The world, it can be argued, has never felt more global, interlocked as it is by power and money.

The catastrophic Sichuan earthquake was not the only great seismic shift of 2008. Among the other dramatic developments captured in Our World Now 2’s pages: the global financial and economic crisis; the election of the first black president of the United States; the wars and the suffering – continuing or new – in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere; the terror attacks in Mumbai; and the rising power of emerging economies.

And, critically, a multitude of environmental and developmental issues also are reflected in the book’s 370-plus photos. Striking images show indigenous people being evicted from private land in the Brazilian Amazon; a doctor tending to a sick refugee child in south-eastern Chad; a whale being butchered in a Japanese port. Other pictures address aspects of the debate over fossil fuels and greenhouse-gas emissions: Chinese women scavenging for useable chunks of coal; British protesters opposing airport expansion; cars awaiting distribution from a Czech auto factory.

Still others reflect the wilder weather and rising sea levels that many attribute to climate change: hurricanes in the United States, cyclones and typhoons in Asia; higher-than-normal flood waters in Venice. The heart-breaking plight of desperate African migrants is captured, momentarily, in scenes of death on a Yemeni beach and survival on a Spanish one. Water, pollution and population issues also feature.

Consumption rears its head in particularly poignant photos. In one from the United States, a “Going Out of Business” sign hangs in a California store above a long shelf full of happy-faced toy monkeys and puppies. Were they all made in China? Quite possibly. The cuddly white bears being stuffed by a factory worker in another picture — taken on the outskirts of Shanghai — certainly were. In what many people are coming to regard as outsourcing of carbon emissions, Asian manufacturers have been turning out products for western markets in huge quantities. A little American girl is shown riding in a shopping trolley along with a Japanese television. What will the world be like when she is grown? Will nations still be exacerbating environmental degradation, or will they have learned to prize conservation above relentless economic growth?

More-positive environmental signs feature in other photos, particularly the use of solar power. A Spanish solar-energy park near Seville is dramatically pictured, as are solar panels covering the roof of a building in Vatican City.

Other uplifting images include a woman’s quiet reflection during “Earth Hour”; a sea of hands reaching out to touch Barack Obama’s; Venezuelan children queuing to exchange their toy guns for non-weapon toys; celebrations of the birthdays of Nelson Mandela (at 90) and an ordinary woman in Cuba (at 108); marriages and births; sporting triumphs; hostage releases; and the simple joys of art and entertainment, relaxation and play.

The Reuters editors again have winnowed down the roughly half-million images that crossed their desks in the last year to produce this touching second edition of Our World Now. Again, it comes from Thames & Hudson, the London-based art-book publisher. As with the first volume, the book is arranged by quarters of the year — rather than by subject or region — giving a sense of how 2008 unfolded. Unfortunately, there is still no index; hopefully, the editors will consider one next year. While the book is a treat to dip into at random, an index would be useful for finding favourite pictures again more easily.

New this year — and a welcome addition — are “Witness” accounts. In these word and picture essays, photographers relate some of their experiences and emotions while on particular news assignments. Two of the seven topics chosen are Chinese.

Jason Lee (Li Jiangsong), a Beijing-based photographer, tells of returning to his home province, Sichuan, to cover the devastating May 2008 earthquake. In Hanwang town, he was one of the first outsiders to arrive. “Under gloomy skies and soft drizzle, it was like the end of the world,” he reports, while Beichuan, “amid a magnificent mountain landscape, was a valley of death.” Later, informed that a lake formed by landslides was about to burst its banks, Lee and thousands of others ran for their lives. “For the first time in my life, I felt the approach of death,” he writes. Professional that he is, however, Lee stopped running after five minutes and turned back to record the scene with his cameras.

On the other end of the emotional scale for China in 2008 were, of course, the Summer Olympic Games. Tom Szlukovenyi, Reuters’ Hungarian-born global picture editor, introduces a “Witness” section featuring some of the now well-known images of record-setting athletic achievements. “The Olympics is the ultimate team job”, he writes of the combined efforts of 50 photographers and 20 editors.

The book’s other, equally compelling, “Witness” reports address post-election warfare in Kenya (fought in some places with bows and arrows); childbirth high in the Peruvian Andes; the Russian-Georgian conflict; Barack Obama’s election-night victory rally in Chicago; and the decade-long fighting in the Democratic Republic on Congo, the deadliest conflict since the Second World War.

This excellent, touching volume reminds us again that there are dedicated, sharp-eyed photojournalists recording our planet’s history, every day, frame by frame — and often putting their lives on the line to do so. We see their work daily and it affects our beliefs and emotions, but we probably don’t give them much thought, let alone appreciation. Savour this book, and the first volume, and look forward to volume three next year. In Ayperi Karabuda Ecer’s words, Our World Now is the photographers’ “testimony for a memory of the present”.

Maryann Bird is associate editor of chinadialogue