From sports to festivals, natural disasters to protests, hardly a moment of 2020 captured by the photojournalists of The Associated Press in Asia was free of the specter of the disease that rampaged first across the region, and then the world.
Take, for instance, a picture from mid-January, before the pandemic gained regional traction, of a Hindu pilgrim in the water near where the Ganges empties into the Bay of Bengal. There is a peaceful timelessness as the man stretches out a hand toward a glowing sun that hovers like a suspended orange ball just above the watery horizon; this could be from a century ago, a millennium, even. Looking back at it 11 months later, however, after the widespread misery and death that followed, it’s hard to shake a lingering feeling of foreboding.
Many of these images capture not only what those experiencing an extraordinary moment must have felt; they also carry a sense of the universal, of a shared flash of understanding in an otherwise bewildering and brutal year, regardless of how specific or individual the circumstances of each picture might be.
Japanese cheerleaders are caught mid-dance, frozen in a kinetic burst of choreography and energy, pompoms flashing, hair streaming — before empty baseball stands. A little Nepalese girl is the focus of intense attention as she stands masked, her hands raised above her head, her eyes closed in a grimace, and is sprayed with disinfectant by men in head-to-toe protective gear. An Indonesian bride’s latex-gloved finger receives a ring from her latex-gloved groom.
Throughout, there’s a unifying unease: the visceral fear of illness; the sometimes futile, sometimes surreal measures taken to keep an invisible foe at bay; the prevalence of objects that divide people from each other — masks, gloves, protective clothing and barriers of all sorts.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that amid so much turmoil, there was no beauty. AP photographers found poignant episodes of daily life that may illuminate as much about the people living in this massive, diverse region as any pictures of misery or discord.
Dozens of homes in a Mumbai slum are lit up in the black of night with bursts of glaring electricity during celebrations for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, each sparkling scene etching a slice of life as compelling as an old still-life painting. A man in the Philippines lounges in a hammock strung in the trees over the tops of tombs in a deserted cemetery.
Even that most humdrum of activities — the selfie — operated under the shadow of the virus In a picture of two masked women taking a shot of themselves in front of some Olympic rings in Tokyo, it is impossible not to remember that the world’s premier sporting event was canceled by the virus — and, as we enter a new year, the games still hang, along with much of what we once considered normal, in the balance for next summer, too.