The U.S. Presidential Election and the Economy

News photographers in 2008 confronted the power of hope and the inevitability of change through two epics events: an unprecedented presidential campaign and the fall of the U.S. economy.

News photographers in 2008 confronted the power of hope and the inevitability of change through two epics events: an unprecedented presidential campaign and the fall of the U.S. economy.

The subprime mortgage crisis, caused by a staggering rise in mortgage delinquencies and foreclosures, reached a tipping point with the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in September 2008. The result was a global financial crisis that sent governments worldwide scrambling to provide banks and investment institutions with enough capital to stave off economic collapse. The Troubled Assets Relief Program in the U.S., however, could not prevent the stock market from dropping below 7,000, unemployment from rising to 7.2 percent, or financial giants like Washington Mutual from going out of business.

The economic crisis created a platform for an historic U.S. presidential election between Barack Obama, a young, charismatic African American Democrat calling for change, and Republican John McCain, a seasoned prisoner-of-war Senator who touted toughness. Obama’s rally cry of "Yes We Can" ultimately drowned out McCain’s pledge to put "Country First." In November, Americans elected their first black president while Californians voted to ban same-sex marriage in their state.

Global Conflict

Photographers stationed throughout the world documented an increase in violence and war that spread in 2008 from traditional hotspots to nations facing new aggression and turmoil.

Photographers stationed throughout the world documented an increase in violence and war that spread in 2008 from traditional hotspots to nations facing new aggression and turmoil.

Citizens of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Pakistan, and the Gaza Strip know how to navigate their daily lives amid tensions on the verge of boiling into bloodshed. But in Kenya, residents and photojournalists covering the contested 2007 presidential elections were propelled instantly into an atmosphere of destruction and riots in January that claimed more than 1,000 lives.

The former Soviet state of Georgia became an unexpected battleground in July 2008 when regional strife between Ossetian separatists and Georgian armed escalated into a full-scale contest between Russian and Georgian troops in South Ossetia. Several weeks of media attention, complete with images of war and suppression, caused global outrage so vociferous that the Russian government halted their attack in mid-August.

Whatever the locale or customary level of unrest, photojournalists pushed the limits of personal safety to stand in the line of fire and capture the look of terror, the consequence of differing ideologies, and indiscriminant loss worldwide.

China: Olympics, Three Gorges Dam, Earthquake

Photojournalists were allowed extraordinary access to China in 2008 as the country prepared to host the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing.

Photojournalists were allowed extraordinary access to China in 2008 as the country prepared to host the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. They documented an evolving landscape of ambition that often valued achievement of the country above the needs of its countrymen. Images of the construction of innovative buildings, such as the Bird’s Nest, were often in contrast to a darker reality facing the Chinese people.

In May, a deadly 7.9-magnitude earthquake in the southwestern province of Sichuan that killed more than 69,000 and caused another 5 million Chinese to become homeless. In remote rural communities, photography communicated to the world the enormity of the natural disaster. Perhaps none were so emotionally unnerving as the images of schools that had collapsed while classes were in session, burying 19,000 children in a grave of rubble. July saw the last township along the banks of the Yangtze River to be relocated to make way for rising waters and the completion of the Three Gorges Dam—the largest hydroelectric dam in the world. Since displacement began in 2004, more than 1.4 million Chinese have been moved from their homes.

Sorrow gave way to glory when the Olympic Games kicked off in August. More than 11,000 athletes competed in 302 events that were marked with athletic artistry and world records, including eight gold medals by U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps.

The Human Condition

The photographer’s lens alone can’t solve conflicts or feed the poor. But as an unwavering eye focused squarely on a reality we too often ignore, the lens becomes a call to consciousness and an invitation to action.

The photographer’s lens alone can’t solve conflicts or feed the poor. But as an unwavering eye focused squarely on a reality we too often ignore, the lens becomes a call to consciousness and an invitation to action.

In India and Bangladesh, segments of society are confined to a culture of caste discrimination that defines their work and determines their fate. Similarly, in Middle America the failure of local industry has created communities of perpetual unemployment and poverty that have bred a generation of undereducated and despondent teens with few prospects for their future.

Health care in marginalized countries continues to be ill-equipped and under-staffed. Hospitals and institutions serve as little more than warehouses for suffering. The mentally disabled are often abandoned in overcrowded and filthy sanatoriums. Natural disasters like Hurricane Ike in Haiti, one of the poorest nations on Earth, inevitably leave behind a staggering death toll, widespread infection, and even greater scarcity. All the while in the U.S., one of the world’s richest nations, scores of uninsured working poor wait each week for the chance to see a doctor.

The photographer’s lens alone can’t solve conflicts or feed the poor. But as an unwavering eye focused squarely on a reality we too often ignore, the lens becomes a call to consciousness and an invitation to action.