Our favorite photos from a remarkable year

In 2020, visual journalists were still able to create powerful images despite social unrest and a pandemic.


A year like 2020 requires a special “thank you” to the photographers who have contributed so generously to High Country News. While writers can call, email and meet virtually with their sources, visual journalists simply cannot work from home. Despite a global pandemic, our dedicated collaborators found a way to create powerful imagery, documenting the largest social movement of our time and illuminating countless other critical stories from the West. And they did it all while wearing masks and standing at a safe distance — unique challenges for artists used to moving in closely for the ideal angle, carefully gauging the light and patiently watching for the perfect moment, even traveling long distances to capture remote and rural landscapes and events. We’re proud to share a few of our favorite images from this remarkable year.


Ethan Bates and Cody Sauve adjust the wiring box on a solar array outside their Delta High School classroom. Bates’ father was a coal mine foreman.

In rural Colorado, the kids of coal miners learn to install solar panels

In Colorado’s North Fork Valley, solar energy — along with a strong organic farm economy and recreation dollars — is helping to fill the economic hole left by the dying coal industry, which sustained the area for more than 120 years. When the mines still ran, graduating seniors could step immediately into good-paying jobs. Now, thanks to science teacher Ben Graves class, high school students can graduate as a certified solar panel installer. HCN Associate Photo Editor Luna Anna Archey tagged along for a day of classwork.


Stephanie Medina sits in the living room at her mother’s home in San Bernadino. Throughout school, Medina didn’t consider college an option until DACA was announced when she was 12.

Why the University of California is fighting for DACA

A year after Stephanie Medina received “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” program, or DACA, the Trump administration announced the end of the program. For Medina, the end of DACA meant a return to the vulnerability that had defined her life without a legal status — and marked the beginning of another ordeal. Morgan Lieberman spent the afternoon with Medina and her mother to make intimate portraits.


A crowd gathers on the shore of Pyramid Lake to witness the release of 22 bighorn sheep onto Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe land.

The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe reintroduces bighorn sheep on tribal lands

“We lost almost our entire fisheries that we’ve been working decades to recover,” said Emily Hagler, biologist and wetlands environmental specialist for the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. “This is just the next step in restoring another native species that has been lost.”

For the first time in roughly a hundred years, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe will have a flock of bighorn sheep on tribal land that was once a part of the sheep’s historic habitat. Not only will the effort help restore the species; it will also renew hunting and tanning traditions and support ceremonial uses — practices disrupted as the sheep population declined. Editorial Fellow Kalen Goodluck was there to witness the flock being released.


Genízaro Maurice Archuleta in the high desert surrounding Abiquiú.

A photographer captures the fortitude of the Genízaro Pueblo of Abiquiú community

In shadowy black-and-white photographs, Salt Lake City-based photographer Russel Albert Daniels (Diné and Ho-Chunk) documents the celebration of the Feast Day of Santo Tomás in The Genízaro Pueblo of Abiquiú. 


The park above the safe lot provides for a great space to play in at dusk when it has cooled off. The boys and their mother Anna usually take a walk after she returns from her shift at the hospital and before she starts her online classes.

Mountain View, California, offers a ‘safe lot’ for RV dwellers

In March, as Californians sheltered in place, one family moved to a ‘safe lot’ from a nearby street bordering the Stanford campus, where cars speeding down the main thoroughfare shook their RV. Now, their home is parked in the Shoreline Amphitheater parking lot, within walking distance of nature trails, the Google Campus in Silicon Valley and a park where people still fly kites every day. Photographer Nina Riggio photographed a day in the life of the six-year-old Diego and five-year-old TJ as the boys explored their new surroundings.


On April 10, 2020, activists converged on the Eloy and La Palma immigrant detention centers in Eloy, Arizona, for a “COVID-safe” car protest to call attention to the threat of contracting the coronavirus facing detainees inside the facilities.

Protesting immigrant detention during a pandemic

“Finding a way to do action even in such a weird and dramatic time is really vital,” one protester explained. 

At around 4:30 p.m., cars snaked down the road to the Eloy Detention Center and La Palma Correctional Center between Tucson and Phoenix, Arizona, driving in loops past the concertina wire fence. Protesters honked their horns and beat pots and pans. Over a hundred supporters showed up. HCN Photo Editor Roberto (Bear) Guerra documented the protest and made the image that would become the cover of our June issue.


“As I was walking with the crowd, people were smiling, saying I was playing the right music. I felt good. I stayed there the whole night.” —Wilkens, Echo Park

Portraits from Los Angeles’ Black Lives Matter demonstrations

Stephanie Mei-Lings collection of portraits and quotes from Los Angeles visitors and residents answer why theyve showed up to lend their voice to the movement.


Danny Brown walks through the forest to visit the site where his good friend perished.

Wildland firefighters are risking their mental health

The trauma Danny Brown sustained when his friend died on the fireline could happen to any wildland firefighter. It drove him out of the career he loved and the community that came with it, and to his agony it limited his ability to support his wife and their three children. He was eventually diagnosed with chronic PTSD — post-traumatic stress disorder — and in his most desperate moments, he thought about taking his life. Adding to his suffering was the feeling that he had been abandoned by the government that put him in harm’s way. Photographer Michael Hanson followed Brown to the site of his friend’s death.


The author and her father maintain their social distance during an August visit at the senior care home where he lives in Corvallis, Oregon.

In the middle of a pandemic, a lifetime of lessons from a parent

Photographer Will Matsuda witnesses a tender distanced moment between a writer and her aging father. In her essay, Barb Lachenbruch tries to explain the coronavirus pandemic to the man that taught her the mysteries of life and physics, as his senility begins to muddle their interactions


Delaine Spilsbury, an Ely Shoshone tribal elder who worked with the Water Network, stands at Swamp Cedars in Spring Valley, a site significant to her and the Western Shoshone that would have been threatened by groundwater pumping.
Russel Albert Daniels/High Country News

Killing the Vegas Pipeline

Delaine Spilsbury, the Ely Shoshone leader, watched the board meeting via a video call. “I yelled at my son, Rick, ‘Get the champagne! — Get the champagne!’ It was hard to believe that it was happening. When it’s been that way for so long, you never think it will change.” Russel Albert Daniels made portraits of her and another pipeline opponent and beautifully captured the landscape of Spring Valley, Nevada.


In Browning, Montana, a town on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Browning High School students wear red skirts representing the movement for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women to school in October 2019.

On the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, girls and women box, march and continue searching for those lost

Frank Kipp knows that teaching children to box is no more than a Band-Aid for the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (referenced on social media as #MMIWG), who are slain at 10 times the national average. However, options are limited when the justice system fails to protect the country’s most vulnerable populations. Tailyr Irvine tells the story of a community still searching for one of their own, and training to protect themselves.


Shaheed waves to one of Jerrae’s neighbors, as he and Nijhel take their horses back to their stable for the evening.

Black cowboys reclaim their history in the West

Nijhel Motley is well aware of the erasure of Black cowboys from history and the current barriers to their participation in rodeo. “When you don’t have the land and the money and the funds, it’s easy for you to get pushed under the rug,” he said. “It’s a lot harder for us to break through that seal, but it’s happening.” Roberto (Bear) Guerra brought his camera to a ride of four men that call themselves “As the Crows Fly.”

Can’t get enough photography? Check out our photo galleriesEmail High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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