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The stories behind the best photographs of 2020

PA's photographers explain how they got their best shots of the year.

It’s a year that has been dominated by one story and while others have been in lockdown and working from home, the PA news agency’s photographers have been out on the front line every day showing our nation gripped in a pandemic like no other.

Access to hospitals has been difficult, while many of the planned events that provide the rhythm to the year’s news and sports coverage have been cancelled.

The photographers have had the very real worry of bringing the virus back to their homes and families.

But they have risen to the challenge and delivered a stunning set of images. These, in their own words and in no particular order, are the best.

The Queen
The Queen leaves Buckingham Palace

Aaron Chown

“The moment in March the Queen departed Buckingham Palace for Windsor Castle, accompanied by her dorgies. Unusually, she left the official London royal residence a week before the start of the Easter holidays, and four days before the UK was put into strict lockdowns. The Queen has not yet returned to Buckingham Palace and no date has been given for her return. This is Her Majesty’s longest time away from Buckingham Palace during her six decade-long reign.”

Dominic Cummings
Dominic Cummings holds a press conference amid anger at his lockdown journey to Barnard Castle

Jonathan Brady

“OK, so it’s a man sat at a table next to a microphone in a garden and, yes, I was the only photographer allowed in. However, I think there is something about this image which captures the juxtaposition of banal subject matter with a particular moment of acute national attention and controversy. This image and others from the set were used across all of the national newspapers the following day. It is of course the moment when Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s then chief political adviser Dominic Cummings appeared before assembled media in the garden of Number 10 Downing Street to explain his actions following his controversial journey to Barnard Castle during the first national lockdown.

“It is often assumed that being the only photographer at an event is a pressure-free task, and more often than not it is. There are no other photographers there to ‘compete’ with and so any missed moments or mistakes are solely a matter between the photographer and their conscience. However, there was intense pressure in my mind the entire time of knowing my peers would scrutinise my work and my documenting of this moment was going to be the focus for the media that day and days to come. Nothing could be missed. I don’t think it was.”

Protesters throwing a statue of Edward Colston into Bristol harbour
Protesters throwing a statue of Edward Colston into Bristol harbour

Ben Birchall

“For me this image sums up the frustration in the UK and across the world of the treatment of black people and their struggle to find a voice amid the Black Lives Matter movement. The statue of Edward Colston, a 17th-century slave trader, can be seen about to fall into the water in the foreground with hordes of protesters stood across Pero’s Bridge in the background. The bridge is named after enslaved African Pero Jones, who was brought to Bristol aged 12 to work as a servant and died in the city after 32 years of service. These two elements in the frame (with very little time to truly compose for this effect) create a very historic and newsworthy juxtaposition, unlike any other news picture I’ve ever taken.”

The Queen displayed in London’s Piccadilly Circus
The Queen’s broadcast to the UK displayed in London’s Piccadilly Circus

Dominic Lipinski

“This was one of the images I remember taking most from the first national coronavirus lockdown in July. The sight of a giant portrait of the Queen Elizabeth II on the big screen overlooking an almost deserted Piccadilly Circus was eerie – a familiar face looking out at a very unfamiliar situation.”

Margaret Keenan, 90, who became the first person to receive the Pfizer/BioNtech covid-19 vaccine
Margaret Keenan, 90, who became the first person to receive the Pfizer/BioNtech covid-19 vaccine

Jacob King

“Earlier this month Margaret Keenan, 90, was applauded by staff as she returned to her ward after becoming the first person in the world to receive the Pfizer/BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine outside of trial at University Hospital, Coventry, at the start of the largest ever immunisation programme in the UK’s history.

“The image seems to be a defining moment in the coronavirus pandemic and hopefully the beginning of the end of a difficult time for many. I was very fortunate to be the pool photographer for the occasion and the reaction the images received gave me a sense of the relief felt across the media and public at the potential for the virus to be controlled heading into 2021.”

The Union flag being taken down outside the European Parliament in Brussels
The Union flag being taken down outside the European Parliament in Brussels

Yui Mok

“My best picture of the year was taken on January 31, 2020, when the Union flag was lowered from its pole outside the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, and removed to mark the UK formally leaving the European Union, after 47 years of membership.

“I like the image for its powerful symbolism and historical significance – the photograph not only captures the lowering of a flag, but a picture of a divided nation mired in political turmoil and economic uncertainty.”

Surfers riding high waves in Mullaghmore, Co Sligo
Surfers riding high waves in Mullaghmore, Co Sligo

Niall Carson

“My favourite photo of 2020 is of Donegal surfer Conor Maguire surfing giant 60ft waves caused by the remnants of Hurricane Epsilon at Mullaghmore head off the Sligo coast.

“I got a tip the night before, which meant a 5.30am start and a four-hour drive from my home. I arrived just in time to catch two waves before the tide receded and the show was over. All in all a two-minute window for a once-in-a generation event.”

Renee Zellweger at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party
Renee Zellweger at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party

– Ian West

“The red carpet for the Vanity Fair Oscars party opens at midday in Los Angeles and after you find your assigned place you then stand there taking pictures for hours. After about eight hours your shoulders start to hurt, your arms start to ache and your back feels broken but you have to stay where you are as the film stars who have actually attended the awards ceremony have yet to arrive.

“It was about 1am when Renee Zellweger arrived with her Best Actress award for the film Judy. As usual every photographer shouted their head off trying to get Renee to look their way. After 13 or so hours, thankfully, I was still loud enough.”

Huddersfield players Jonathan Hogg and Chris Willock battling for the ball
Huddersfield players Jonathan Hogg and Chris Willock battling for the ball

– Mike Egerton

“One of the benefits of photographing a football match with no spectators is the fact that you can work from virtually anywhere in the stadium. As it was a late afternoon kick-off I knew that by the end of the match shadows would be cast over the pitch as the sun disappeared behind the stands.

“By positioning myself high in the stands I would be able to capture a nice action shot with unusual shadows cast onto the grass. It is not as easy as it sounds to get a nice action picture and nice shadows together in the same frame. Luckily on this occasion three players came together just in the right location, for the sun, and produced a very unusual football picture.”

Visitors at Edinburgh Castle standing socially distanced in marked out circles
Visitors at Edinburgh Castle standing socially distanced in marked out circles

– Jane Barlow

“The firing of the One o’clock Gun at Edinburgh Castle is a daily occurrence and one which attracts hundreds of tourists every day. I like how a very familiar scene in Edinburgh has become slightly unusual with the introduction of socially-distanced circles painted on the ground due to the restrictions.

“I also like the geometric pattern the people in circles creates. It was fascinating watching the people gradually assemble in the minutes leading up to one o’clock: no one told people to stand in the circles; families and couples just did it. And it was a bonus to get the flash of the gun!”

A man spraying disinfectant at a statue of the crucifixion of Jesus in Dublin on Good Friday.
A man spraying disinfectant at a statue of the crucifixion of Jesus in Dublin on Good Friday

– Brian Lawless

“This image was taken on Good Friday when the Republic of Ireland was almost a month into lockdown and with case numbers still rising when then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced there would be an extension of restrictions. As the Republic is a predominantly Catholic country Good Friday, for some, is still an important day especially for older generations. Also Easter is a time of celebration and coming together for a large portion of the population and this wasn’t going to be.

“I think it’s the simplicity but also the starkness of the image I like. The crucifixion of Christ is such a recognisable symbol of suffering and at this stage there wasn’t a person on the planet not suffering in some way in these strange and uncertain times. Then to have the man spraying disinfectant seemed somewhat irreverent but also absolutely necessary. Often people will touch the statue’s feet or even kiss the statue, something maybe done without much thought for hygiene in the past but in this new era an act now unthinkable. It also reminded me of Christ’s act of washing his disciples’ feet and the humility associated with it.

“Ultimately I felt the image told a story of how this thing that was new to us all was affecting every aspect of our lives, even the oldest of traditions.”

A ballerina during a dress rehearsal at Leeds Playhouse
A ballerina during a dress rehearsal at Leeds Playhouse

– Danny Lawson

“The photograph is one of the last images from a feature that I shot documenting the Northern Ballet’s return to the stage following the first Covid-19 lockdown. I spent two extremely long days working behind the scenes with the dancers as they trained and rehearsed under Covid-safe conditions. The image was taken during the final dress rehearsal on their opening night.”

The Duchess of Cambridge stroking an alpaca during a visit in Northern Ireland
The Duchess of Cambridge stroking an alpaca during a visit in Northern Ireland

– Liam McBurney

“I love the expression on the duchess’s face as she strokes an alpaca during a visit to The Ark Open Farm, at Newtownards, near Belfast. It was a radiant and natural smile that made her glow. I also remember this image because on the same job a goat at the farm took a fancy to my coat and started jumping on me as it ate my coat.”

The Irish Guards’ new canine regimental mascot, an Irish wolfhound called Turlough Mor
The Irish Guards’ new canine regimental mascot, an Irish wolfhound called Turlough Mor

Victoria Jones

“I was asked to attend a photocall at Wellington Barracks in London for their new canine mascot. As with many military jobs it was all starting to look a little regimented and dull and I didn’t think that I’d get a particularly good picture from it.

“The lovely dog was only six months old and started to get a little bored and naughty, so his handler, who as an Irish Guard wearing the traditional bearskin uniform, took for him a short walk away from the photocall.

“I continued shooting because the soldier and his new dog looked so lovely playing together, away from the regimented look that we would normally expect to see, however I was worried that for this reason I may be asked to not use the pictures. Luckily the Barracks agreed that it was nice to see the more human side of their work, and I was rewarded with a front page picture on The Daily Telegraph the next day, as well as some very muddy knees.”

A herd of goats taking advantage of quiet streets near Trinity Square, in Llandudno
A herd of goats taking advantage of quiet streets near Trinity Square, in Llandudno

Pete Byrne

“The quieter streets in Llandudno because of lockdown meant the Welsh mountain goats were roaming freely around the town. I was on another job when I got a call from the picture desk telling me about them and asking me to go.

“After a 90-mile, two-hour drive, at first I couldn’t see anything. I was not impressed as I thought I had failed myself by not finding them and assumed they had gone back up the mountain again. I went for a walk to see if there was a coffee shop open and, as I turned the corner, I was met by a herd of goats just walking down the road. A sight I’ll never forget.”

Review of the Year 2020
Canada’s Jay Lamoureux riding the Men’s Individual Pursuit during the 2020 UCI Track Cycling World Championships

Tim Goode

This picture was taken at the World Track Cycling Championships, held in Berlin in February. The Velodrom is not an aesthetically pleasing building inside or out, so you spend a lot of time trying to cut out things in the background such as advertising boards. One way to do this is to produce a panning picture, achieved by slowing down the shutter speed, focusing on the rider and following them through the frame – blurring everything out except them. The shutter speed for this picture was 1/15 of a second, so you lose all of the messy background and turn it into something that looks much better!

“Riders on the track can get up to around 50mph, and the individual pursuit that this picture is of is ridden over 4km, so you get a few attempts of each rider. I’d been wanting to take this picture from the start of the week but just had to wait for the right event to execute it in. I was glad I got it in the bag when I did as when we went back in the next day the stewards had decided we were no longer allowed in that part of the course.

“Track cycling is one of the most exiting sports to photograph, with years of practice coming down to as little as one lap in an event and tiny mistakes can make or break your competition. This picture gives some idea of the speed and precision of track cycling, which is always electric when the top riders are competing.”

Review of the Year 2020
Nursing staff at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow and joining Clap for Carers

Andrew Milligan

“I was covering Clap for Carers at 8pm at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow where usually emergency staff would stand at the entrance to A&E and clap.

“On this occasion just as the clock hit the hour the staff outside turned their back on me and clapped towards windows several levels up, taking my attention to where nursing staff were in full PPE clapping at the windows.

“The three staff filled the window frame perfectly with their blue suits standing out.”

Review of the Year 2020
Flood water surrounding a church in Tirley, Gloucestershire

Steve Parsons

“Flooding hit the UK really badly with many parts cut off and after a long week of trying to find new drone angles to show how cut off places were, I found this Gloucestershire church surrounded by water and showed the impact it was having.”

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