The best photographs of 2016 – in scenes

From the of David Bowie to the rise of Trump, and mayhem in Mosul and Aleppo: photographers describe how they took the pictures that tell the story of 2016. Selection by Karin Andreasson

Boy on a bike at the Qayyarah oilfields (21 October)
Carl Court/Getty Images

I had heard the oilfields were on fire in Qayyarah, Iraq, and spent hours driving to get there. When I finally arrived, there was a strange atmosphere in the town it felt dangerous and volatile, like anything could happen. My fixer said he was worried, that it didnt feel right, and when a local guy like him is saying he doesnt feel safe, you have to listen. We agreed to spend only 10 minutes on the ground, so I set my stopwatch and started snapping.

I was shooting the huge plumes of black smoke that were billowing up hundreds of feet into the air and hovering above, shrouding in darkness. The light filtered through the soot in the air, creating an almost cinematic effect. I thought, its a shame there arent any people around to show how locals are with this on their doorstep.

Just then, along came this boy on his bike. He stopped, looked at me quizzically for a few seconds, then cycled off. Most of the stuff I shoot in war zones feels run of the mill, but occasionally you realise that youve captured a poignant, important image. This was one of those times. When my 10 minutes were up, we got back into the air-conditioned car and drove away, we were very aware that we were leaving that poor kid behind. His life expectancy is probably lower after breathing in that horrible air. Hes what gives the picture its power; its that eerie mix of childhood and war.

U.S.

President Obama meets president-elect Donald Trump in the Oval Office (10 November)
Win McNamee/Getty Images

The day after the election, I left New York City where Id been planning to cover the election night event featuring the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, who had not shown up. Back in Washington DC, we immediately began sending requests to the White House press office for access to the first meeting between Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

The next morning, along with almost 30 other photographers and reporters, I was piling through the narrow doorway of the Oval Office where the two were seated. These situations are frequently chaotic and this one was no different, with reporters shouting questions and jostling for position. I expected the atmosphere to be somewhat chilly, but I was surprised to find it was just the opposite they were quite at ease, comfortable in each others presence. It seemed to me that Obama had already decided that the best way to proceed was to genuinely offer as much help as he could to try and make sure the government continues to function as it should.

As I was photographing, I thought about the paintings and sculptures surrounding them. There is a portrait of the first president of the US George Washington in the centre, looking down from above, and busts of Martin Luther King to the left of Trump and of Abraham Lincoln to the right of Obama. I wondered what these former leaders would think of American politics today. I think thats what makes the picture so powerful. The way its framed shows the context of the Oval Office and the maelstrom of the press, as well as the expressions on the two mens faces. You see the urgency of the moment.

IRONMAN

Sea turtle joins IronMan swimmers in Hawaii (8 October)
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

I had been in the water in Kailua Kona, Hawaii, for a couple of hours, getting everything ready to shoot the start of the IronMan race. Just before the start, out of the corner of my eye I saw this thing swimming right by me. I swung round and realised it was a green sea turtle. Ive seen fish and other creatures before, but never a sea turtle at the start they usually steer clear of crowds, especially a group of 2,000 like this. I shot a couple of pictures and then he swam off, and the race started two minutes later.

I knew as soon as I took the photograph that I had something special. Its the juxtaposition of the turtle, floating so effortlessly underwater, underneath a bunch of humans who obviously arent as fit to be in the water they have no clue hes there. The host is much more at ease than the visitors, flying through the water, while they all kick their legs to stay afloat.

The green Honu, as these creatures are called, is a symbol of good luck in Hawaii its considered a blessing when you see one. They are revered and respected. I dont know if it brought luck to all the competitors, but it certainly did for me, with this photograph.

San

NFL football national anthem protest (2 October)
Marcio Sanchez/AP

I knew that Kaepernick (centre) was planning to take a stand during the national anthem at this game [between the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys] because hed done it a few weeks earlier. He had said he was trying to make a statement about the oppression of people of colour, particularly by police. My focus was on taking the best technical image that I could. That meant being really close to the athletes closer than I would be comfortable with, and closer than I am officially allowed to be, as only the team photographer has permission to be in that area. I discreetly walked over thinking a team official would stop me, but nobody did, so I just kept going. I took this shot from a kneeling position, just a few feet away from my subjects.

There was a sense of tension and sadness among the athletes. This is an issue they are divided on some support him, like the two teammates who joined him (Eli Harold and Eric Reid), but others are against his stance. It was a very quiet and sombre mood. I didnt get emotionally involved because I know that, as a professional, it gets in the way of recording the moment. If I let my own biases affect me on an issue as polarising as this then I wont tell the story properly, so over the years I have learned to detach myself.

Im an immigrant Im from Honduras and moved to the US when I was 13 and Ive noticed that professional athletes here seem to mirror what is going on socially in the country. I was aware of the historic significance of the moment and that it was my mission to document it. Kaepernick continues to kneel during the national anthem, and says hell stop when he feels progress has been made. I look forward to taking that photograph.

This

Giant sinkhole and restoration, Fukuoka, Japan (8 and 15 November)
Marina Imasato, Hiroko Harima/AP

Two sinkholes had appeared in the main road of Hakata, the biggest city in Fukuoka then joined to make one enormous hole, about 20m squared. I searched for a spot as high up as possible to take a picture from the birds eye view, and I found a room on the 7th floor of a building nearby. I opened the window to take my photograph and, looking down from above, I couldnt believe that what I was seeing was real. It looked like meteorites had struck the earth. Not long after, sewage began flowing into the hole from the broken pipe, and the water level started to rise.

There were similar incidents in 2000 and 2004, and the causes still havent been found. I hope my picture shows that we need to investigate the causes of this accident so that we can try to stop it happening again. MI

Evacuation

Evacuation of the refugee camp in Calais (26 October)
Etienne Laurent/EPA

Its hard to believe this photograph was taken in France. It could be the middle of a desert, a city near Mosul, or any other country at war. Its like a city under siege, with the fires in the centre. But no, its France.

And yet, I was not shocked. I was just sad. There was a feeling that there was no solution for the problem of the Jungle, other than destruction. That is why I was not surprised when the fires were started we still dont know by whom. After four years of covering the camp, I knew these people, Id met them before, most of them were friendly and warm. But we all knew it was over before the fire started the camp had been being demolished for a few days, the refugees knew they were leaving and never coming back. Many were happy to go, and hoped to move on somewhere better, perhaps to apply for citizenship in France. Anything was better than being stuck in the Jungle, where there was no hope.

For me, this photograph shows an ending, but not a conclusion because the problem of where these migrants can go is far from solved.

Beyonce

Beyonc performs at the Super Bowl (7 February)
Mark J Rebilas/USA Today Sports

I photograph the Super Bowl every year but my main focus is the action on the football field. The half-time concert is a chance for me to do something different. I knew Beyonc was going to be making an appearance but they keep everything pretty secretive leading up to the performance. I had four cameras on me with various lenses, so once I saw her come out I grabbed my longest lens to get a closeup view I was pretty far away.

During the half-time show, its quite chaotic for the photographers on the sidelines they have so many performers, big speakers, banners, and stuff that gets in the way. Theres all sorts of bright lights, smoke machines, fire a lot of visuals that can really change how a photo looks. I ended up standing on a table to get a clear view for this picture, taken during her performance of Formation.

I like how it has Beyonc perfectly in the middle of her dancers, and theyre all coming towards the camera with real intense looks on their faces. I didnt know this at the time, but a lot of people were making a big deal of the [Black Panther-style] outfits her dancers were wearing. It seemed a little silly I just thought it was a cool costume and didnt read anything more into it.

Republican

Trump holds baby cousins in Colorado (29 July)
Stacie Scott/AP

Im not a huge supporter of Trumps, so when I was sent to cover his campaign rally at a college in Colorado Springs I wasnt exactly looking forward to listening to him speak. Plus, when I arrived, the media had been restricted to the back of the room and we couldnt leave the barricade. I was nervous, because when youre covering something like that you want to go back to the office with something other than a podium shot, but from my position anything creative went out the window.

After his speech we were invited on to the stage, and I started to get excited. We were all fighting for space, so I went to the opposite side and waited for him to make his way along the line. When he got to the end, he was handed two babies by two mothers, who took pictures for about three seconds before he turned around to the media. He made all these goofy faces, and I was thinking, Wow, this is great! It was a wonderful 30 seconds for us.

There were other versions of this photograph moments when everyone looked happy, or he was kissing a baby on the head, but I immediately knew this was the one. The picture said so much; I feel like it reflected how a lot of people felt about the election, at the time and now. It represented the fear, anger and frustration of his opponents, that we had reached a point where Trump was actually a serious candidate for president. I guess it also represented the pain and outrage his supporters were feeling about the way things were. Now I see it as a kind of foreshadowing of what happened next and the results of the election: it is a moment of terror.

Nidhi

Women wounded in the Brussels airport attacks (22 March)
Ketevan Kardava/AP

I was in the main hall of Brussels airport when I heard a sound like nothing I have ever heard before. I was standing in the middle of two terrific explosions how I am still alive I do not know. Police would later tell me that it was a miracle that I escaped with no injury, that I was lucky. Perhaps I was lucky to live, but to be a part of this terror attack there was nothing lucky about that.

I looked to my right and I saw a picture of hell. No one was standing, glass was falling, people were lying on the floor covered in blood and dust, their legs and hands blown up. I will never forget that sight. It was instinct that made me put my hand in my pocket and pull out my iPhone. I took this photograph, my first, at 8.03am, and 60 seconds later, at 8.04am, I took my 12th and final photo. Then soldiers told me I had to move, that it was too dangerous to stay.

I posted the photograph online and within an hour it was on the front page of the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Guardian websites. I later found out that the woman in the yellow jacket is called Nidhi Chaphekar and that she worked for Jet Airways. Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, I managed to find all the heroes that appear in my 12 photos, and they are all alive and healthy. We are friends now, and we talk nearly every day somehow, it helps us.

I still live with the trauma of what I went through. For a few months I could not wear earphones because I was afraid of missing a sound. I cover so many stories of terror as a journalist and its very difficult for me to interview survivors because I know exactly how they feel. But this is something I have to overcome, because I have no right to sit and think about what happened. I have to go on with my life.

Usain

Usain Bolt competes at the Rio Olympics (14 August)
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

This image was captured during Usain Bolts semi-final race. It was his last ever Olympics, so there was a lot of hype and a lot of pressure on him. I was actually photographing the high jump at the time, but I had time to duck across to the 100m race. I ran to the 70m mark I knew he should be ahead of the other athletes and planned to photograph him using a slow shutter speed. Initially, there was a false start its an instant disqualification, and my immediate reaction was God, I hope thats not Bolt. I sprinted to the start line just in case, because that would have been the story of the Olympics. Luckily it wasnt him, so I had run back, reset my camera settings and get ready I was a bit pumped up.

Then the gun went off and Bolt was out in front by the 60m mark. You get camera shake when youre shooting that slow so I had to hold my breath as they ran past. Next thing you know, hes gone. When it was over, I looked at my camera and saw the big grin on his face I couldnt believe it. I knew it was something different and exciting. It wasnt until after the 100m final later that night that I went on social media and realised that the image had blown up. Ive never had a picture gain momentum like that before. People were saying things like, This is the photo of the Olympics which was a huge compliment.

I think the picture resonated with so many because its an artistic shot, but also because Bolt is an entertainer, a showman on the track, and a lovable character. The way he runs, with such great technique and confidence, is all summed up in that picture. I met him after his final race and gave him a print. He said Ive seen it, I love it!

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