Photos of 2023 and the stories behind them

(Reuters) – From Arkansas to Ukraine, from ceremonies to courtrooms, from neighborhood games to top-flight tennis matches, Reuters photographers were on the ground in 2023 to bring the world to the world.

They were in Libya and Turkey in the aftermath of disasters, in Israel, Gaza and Ukraine as conflict raged, and on the U.S.-Mexico border as migrants sought to cross.

They showcased the ancient – the full moon over the Temple of Poseidon and Japanese cormorant fishing – and the modern, as SpaceX launched its Starship and Germany built green-energy power lines.

Below is a selection of some exceptional Reuters pictures taken in 2023, along with the stories behind the shots from the photographers who took them.

Eduardo Munoz: West Point, New York, USA

It is a surprising portrait: a young military cadet is looking directly into the lens as blood trickles down her face.

Eduardo Munoz was covering the May 2023 graduation ceremony at the Army’s prestigious U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York. He was taking pictures of that familiar moment when the graduates, resplendent in their gray and white dress uniforms, toss their hats into the air to celebrate their achievement.

Amid the crowd, he spotted something different.

“When all hats touched the field, I moved my eyes away from the viewfinder and I saw, not too close but not too far, one of these cadets with blood on her face,” he said.

Munoz witnessed a senior officer asking her how she was. She replied that she was ready to serve her country, and it was a minor wound. Before Munoz could speak to her, she disappeared.

“She vanishes in the sea of cadets celebrating their graduation and ready for action,” said Munoz.

West Point said the graduate was Savannah Achenbach, and that she had been hit during the hat toss with a hat’s brim.

“I didn’t even really feel it,” Achenbach told Reuters when contacted later. “I was so happy and proud I graduated and made it to the finish line.”

Joe Skipper: Boca Chica, Texas, USA

Skipper was covering the first test flight of Elon Musk’s next-generation SpaceX Starship in southern Texas in April.

The ship was mounted atop the Super Heavy rocket, touted as the most powerful launch vehicle on Earth. Getting a close-up photo of liftoff would be a challenge; to Skipper and colleague Steve Nesius, it seemed like an opportune moment to employ remote equipment.

“Steve and I set out the closest camera, about 150 yards (140 meters) from the rocket to a heavily anchored metal fence. We attached a sound trigger, lens heater, and a Canon 1DX camera with a 20mm lens. It was clearly a risk for the gear, but there was hope for a few frames before the smoke from the Raptor engines would shroud the camera,” said Skipper.

In the end, the craft exploded minutes after liftoff, shattering the launchpad and spraying the area with debris. SpaceX said it would try to find the camera and return it.

“One month later, a FedEx package arrived. It was like opening a Christmas present,” said Skipper. Inside – the melted remains of his camera and, miraculously, an intact compact flash card that held five shots of the rocket taking off.

Kim Kyung-Hoon: Oze National Park, Japan

Standing up in his boat, Youichiro Adachi uses birds known as cormorants, tied to long lines, to fish. He lifts his arms expertly to ensure the lines do not become tangled.

Looking on, his son Touichiro watches his father. He wants to become the 19th generation of his family to be a master cormorant fisherman and learn the technical intricacies of the trade.

For Kim Kyung-Hoon, taking the photo was also a technical challenge. It was pitch black and far from the lights of civilization – the scene lit only by a wood fire on the boat. Adachi and the birds were in constant movement, and it was pouring with rain.

Kyung-Hoon was nervous. He adjusted his shutter speed, held his breath, and took multiple shots.

“I was so disappointed when I scrolled through my photos because most of them were blurry,” said Kyung-Hoon. “But a couple of frames captured the right moments.” He had his picture.

Kai Pfaffenbach: Heilbronn, Germany

Pfaffenbach had an insight into two rarely seen worlds when he went more than 200 meters (660 feet) underground to see the construction of the SuedLink electric power line.

Intended to play a key part in Germany’s energy transition, the 700-km (430-mile) SuedLink will transfer green energy, connecting wind power from the north with consumers in the south.

“Getting there was a real adventure itself,” recalled Pfaffenbach. “Medical checks and a special security training were mandatory before I could join a small group of journalists entering that high-speed elevator all covered in salt dust taking us down more than 200 meters under ground level.”

The power line will run through tunnels where salt mining currently takes place.

“I would have never imagined the dimensions of the tunnels in that mine,” said Pfaffenbach. “This particular frame – showing one of the workers adjusting his headlamp with the illuminated relief created by the giant grader … gives an idea of the surreal life more than six feet under.”

Oleksandr Ratushniak: Bakhmut, Ukraine

Bakhmut became synonymous in 2023 with destruction and loss, the focus of heavy fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces. Moscow captured the ruined town in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region in May and it has continued to be a focus of Ukrainian counterattacks.

In this photo from January, Oleksandr Ratushniak shows us a quiet moment of sadness, as 6-year-old Arina bids farewell to her grandfather, with whom she has been living in Bakhmut.

He kneels down to reassure her. She is tearful.

Arina is one of an estimated 11 million people displaced by the war in Ukraine, according to U.N. figures, that began when Russia invaded in February 2022.

As Russian troops occupied the edges of Bakhmut, her mother had asked police to get her daughter out, said Ratushniak, who spoke to her mother and traveled with the police evacuation team to the home of Arina’s paternal grandparents in Bakhmut.

The grandparents initially said they did not want the little girl to leave – but eventually concluded it would be for the best.

“I understood that Arina’s grandparents don’t want to let her go because they love her, but in the end, I think they understood that if they love her, they have to let her go,” said Ratushniak.

Mohammed Salem: Khan Younis, Gaza

Inas Abu Maamar, a 36-year-old woman, cradles a child in her arms, balanced on her knee. It is an image that resonates, as ancient as human history. But in a grim inversion of the familiar, we see that the child she holds close is a corpse, wrapped in a shroud. Later, we see the same small body being carried at her funeral.

The child – Inas’ 5-year-old niece Saly – is one of many who have lost their lives on both sides in the Israel-Hamas war.

On Oct. 7, Hamas gunmen crossed into southern Israel, killing around 1,200 people, according to Israel, and taking about 240 hostage. Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip in retaliation had killed more than 16,000 people by early December, according to health authorities in the Palestinian enclave run by Hamas.

Photographer Mohammad Salem was in the city of Khan Younis in Gaza on Oct. 17 at the Nasser Hospital morgue.

“It was a powerful and a sad moment, and I felt the picture sums up the broader sense of what was happening in the Gaza Strip,” he said. “People were confused, running from one place to another, anxious to know the fate of their loved ones, and this woman caught my eye as she was holding the body of the little girl and refused to let go.”

Ammar Awad: Sderot, Israel

During the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah on Oct. 7, Hamas militants breached security barriers to cross into Israel and launch the deadliest attack on the country since its founding in 1948.

After firing a barrage of rockets for cover, the fighters crossed into border towns, kibbutzim and a music festival, gunning down civilians and taking captives.

As news broke of the attack, photographer Ammar Awad headed to Sderot, a district not far from the border with Hamas-run Gaza. In the distance, he saw plumes of smoke.

He found a trail of death and destruction. Bodies were strewn across the road. A car had swerved off the side of the road, its occupants dead and a bullet hole visible in the windshield.

As the Israeli military entered to take back control, Sderot was a ghost city, said Awad. The only people visible were other journalists, Israeli soldiers, and the dead.

Cheney Orr: Wynne, Arkansas, USA

Having photographed several tornadoes and their destructive aftermath, Cheney Orr has a logistics plan for covering them: use a drone to determine the path the twister took, walk along that path, and speak to those affected before taking pictures.

“This pragmatic approach helps me disconnect from my emotions, in what I believe to be an appropriate amount, to do my job effectively,” said Orr.

But he was caught off-guard in the early hours of April 1, following a tornado in the small town of Wynne, Arkansas. To his surprise, he heard the sound of a gospel hymn being sung, coming out of a house with shattered windows and collapsed walls. He stopped to investigate.

“Out stepped the vocalist, Ester Johnson-El, 62, who invited me in to see the damage,” said Orr. “When the storm arrived Ester had huddled in her home’s closet until a large tree limb impaled the ceiling. She then escaped into her bedroom, only to be narrowly missed by a second limb.”

Johnson-El was shaken but unharmed and was thrilled as her great-granddaughter She-Keelie, 6, arrived to give her a hug.

Her positive attitude despite the circumstances made an impact on Orr.

“To be able to witness and photograph such a moment of pure joy was a gift,” he said. “My emotions are mixed when I leave places like Wynne.”

Carl Recine: Castleton, Britain

Capturing a fleeting moment in England’s Peak District in October was a matter of getting up early and being ready to react quickly when the situation changed for Carl Recine.

“Storm Babet had been battering the UK and Ireland for a couple of days, with large amounts of rainfall falling in the north of England. I’d been keeping an eye on the shaft spillways in Ladybower Reservoir on social media, more affectionately known as the plugholes, for a number of years.

“They only overflow a couple of times a year and only for a few hours when the water level in the reservoir is at its highest. I decided to take a chance that the plugholes would be overflowing.”

Recine arrived at the reservoir as dawn broke. He was happy with his first pictures – but then, just as he was packing away, he noticed a fine rainbow forming.

“I managed to get in position and get 30 seconds before the rainbow disappeared for good, but that was long enough,” he said.

Nic Bothma: Cape Town, South Africa

Bothma got pretty wet taking a photo of sea foam blowing onto a promenade in Cape Town in June.

As a seasonal cold front approached, he had identified a bay that would likely be affected by rough seas and winds, and figured out when the tide would be high.

“Fortunately, this also coincided with late-afternoon light, which assisted the photography,” he said. Seeking an immersive feel, he watched the ocean carefully and moved in at the right moment with a wide-angle lens.

“I had my camera covered under my weather jacket and only used it for a split second to capture this image, but even within such a short moment it covered the body and lens with foam,” he said. “I got pretty wet despite the rain gear.”

Bothma wrapped his camera and lenses in cloths soaked with fresh water. A method he has learned from years covering the ocean, it helps prolong camera life.

Amr Alfiky: Derna, Libya

Alfiky was embedded with rescue teams from the United Arab Emirates after torrential rains in Libya in September caused two dams to burst, sweeping parts of the city of Derna into the Mediterranean Sea.

“On the fourth day of crossing one of the few dirt roads that go through Derna’s valley into the port, where many international rescue teams worked to retrieve dead bodies, sunken vehicles and boats, and debris, I noticed a man always sitting on the remains of a destroyed building,” recalls the photographer.

“I asked the vehicle to stop, and I approached him.”

The man was named Mostafa Elsheikh, and he had been sitting on the rubble of his home, where some of his family and neighbors were still buried. He told Alfiky he was waiting for rescue teams to help him dig out the bodies so he could honor and bury them properly.

Alfiky filmed Elsheikh with video, but Libyan security was concerned for the photographer’s safety and wanted him to leave before he had time to take a photo. The next day, Alfiky returned – and found Elsheikh sitting in the same spot, still waiting.

It was, Alfiky said, the story of many in Derna, where in the wake of the disaster dazed survivors stumbled over the ruins looking for loved ones. Thousands were killed or displaced by the floods.

David Ghahramanyan: Nagorno-Karabakh

After a swift operation by Azerbaijan’s military to retake control of the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, ethnic Armenians fled for the Armenian border in September.

David Ghahramanyan and his family traveled with them along a clogged mountain road. Cars, trucks, buses and tractors wound along the pass, often in two or three lines of traffic, all heading one way.

They took whatever they could fit into or on top of their vehicles. Car trunks were jammed full. Bags, boxes and even furniture were tied down on roof racks.

A journey of 77 km (48 miles) from Stepanakert to the Armenian border took Ghahramanyan and his family 24 hours. They had expected it to take just two hours. As the forced exodus took its toll, Ghahramanyan captured an image of his father shedding a tear by the roadside.

Jane Rosenberg: New York City, USA

When former President Donald Trump arrived for an arraignment at a court in Manhattan in April – the first sitting or former U.S. president to face criminal charges – there was, predictably, high media interest.

But only a small group of photographers were allowed in for barely a minute. At times like that, veteran courtroom sketchers like Jane Rosenberg fill the gap.

“After countless sleepless nights and emails to try to secure a sketch-artist seat in the jury box, I arrived at the courthouse before the sun came up,” she said.

Passing the journalists who had slept overnight in a line in hopes of getting in, and shuffling through multiple security screenings, Rosenberg – one of three artists in the room to document the proceedings – finally took her seat and set up her art supplies.

“Trump walked in and took his place at a front-row table,” she said. “I immediately started drawing. Photographers came and stood in front of me, I leaned left and right, trying to see a sliver of a view of Trump between them. I did not want to waste any time as arraignments can be very quick.

“Then they left. A clear view at last.”

But drawing takes time and people move quickly. Her first sketches weren’t what she wanted.

Then, as Trump turned to hear the prosecutor read out the indictment counts, he held his position.

“I scribbled feverishly, as time could run out any second,” recounts Rosenberg. “It ended, and I had to hurry to finish up whatever I could from memory.”

Eloisa Lopez: Manila, Philippines

Ahead of the FIBA Basketball World Cup, Eloisa Lopez wanted to build a photographic story about the importance of the sport to Filipinos.

Walking around communities in Manila seeking the perfect shot, the moment of clarity for her was realizing that, for many in the city, basketball was akin to a religion.

Her photograph of four young men jostling for the ball echoes biblical depictions in Renaissance art.

“I recognized how deeply and intricately the sport is embedded in the Filipino life. It is tattooed on their bodies, displayed on their altars, many even name their children after basketball stars. It is a source of hope and happiness for many – young and old,” said Lopez.

“Often, as photographers, I think we overlook things that are happening in our own backyards, assuming it’s all mundane. After my experience working on this story, it’s made me look again.”

Clodagh Kilcoyne: Paris, France

Kilcoyne caught the exact moment when Serbian tennis player Olga Danilovic twisted her angle in a tennis match at the French Open in June.

Danilovic, ranked 104th in the world, was looking like she might be about to cause a third-round upset against No. 6 Ons Jabeur, when Jabeur fought back in the third set and Danilovic twisted her ankle.

“I joined the crowd in gasping as she dropped her tennis racket, her legs buckled, and she collapsed onto the clay, wincing in pain,” said Kilcoyne.

A physiotherapist bandaged up her ankle and she returned to the game, but Jabeur had the momentum and went on to win the match.

Kilcoyne photographed other matches at the French Open.

“I had never shot tennis before this and don’t know whether it was Paris or all the exciting ups and downs of the tournament but at Roland Garros, I fell in love with tennis,” she said.

Mario Anzuoni: Los Angeles, USA

Anzuoni’s lucky break came on the champagne carpet outside the Oscars ceremony in Los Angeles in March.

“The scene on the carpet at the Academy Awards is beyond hectic,” said Anzuoni. “You are surrounded by the elite of the entertainment industry, only a handful of photographers is invited by the Academy to roam the carpet, and you have to be quick and selective for three hours, as pictures and moments are everywhere around you.”

Standing just 5 feet (1.5 meters) or so away from pop and film star Lady Gaga, he caught the split-second when she suddenly turned around to see what had happened to another photographer who had tripped and fallen over. The “Bad Romance” singer immediately rushed over to see if the photographer was OK.

Anzuoni handed his camera’s memory card to the team to be processed, and it was not until hours later that he realized he had snapped one of the viral moments of the night.

Carlos Barria: Phoenix, Arizona, USA

As the mercury rose and temperatures sizzled in Phoenix in July, Carlos Barria was trying to figure out a new way to tell the story.

“Photographing weather is a very challenging assignment, not just for physical reasons, but also because it can be very difficult to illustrate something like heat, which in itself is invisible,” he said.

He began looking into thermal cameras, which capture heat energy invisible to the naked eye to create an image in the infrared and then convert it into one with colors.

Such an image, Barria realized, would look powerful next to a “normal” image when photographing daily life in a city where the temperature had been reaching 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 Celsius) or higher every afternoon for two weeks.

Barria took a photo of crowds walking towards a baseball game – dark spots in the infrared against a bright yellow road where the surface temperature was recorded as a dizzying 150 F (65 C).

Lisi Niesner: Laboe, Germany

Niesner spent nearly a year preparing for and shooting footage of divers picking seagrass from the Baltic Sea, as they sought to develop heat-resistant strains of the plants to withstand rising temperatures.

Wearing wetsuits, masks and snorkels, a team of researchers plus Niesner set out in their small boat one early July morning off the coast of Laboe in northern Germany.

The Baltic Sea is usually green and murky, but on this day was relatively clear for Niesner’s “split shot.”

“The split shot is technically tricky, as you have to deal with some challenges,” said Niesner. “Focus under water and above are in different distance, you need a very accurate exposure as light is less available underwater, droplets constantly appear on the front lens, waves coming in are often unpredictable.”

The resulting photo shows the symbiosis of nature and science, she said, as well as featuring the emerald sea and gray clouds typical of the Baltic.

Umit Bektas: Hatay, Turkey

Bektas was one of the first journalists to arrive in Hatay when it was hit by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake that shook southern Turkey and northern Syria in February.

After a 10-hour drive through rain and snow, said Bektas, it was dark by the time he arrived and it was only as dawn broke that the extent of the devastation became clear.

“I witnessed the collapse or damage of historical buildings, newly built apartments, shopping centers, and luxury residences,” he said. “The sounds of people trapped under rubble echoed, and those who survived struggled to aid each other.”

Heading toward one of the city’s most damaged neighborhoods on his second day in Hatay, he asked the search-and-rescue volunteers the same question he had asked in vain numerous times: “Did you reach anybody alive?”

This time, they said yes: They had found Abdulalim Muaini.

In the photo, Muaini peers out from under a large slab of concrete and brick. His legs are trapped, but he is conscious and later he was rescued.

Near him lies his wife Esra. The rescue had come too late for her, and for the couple’s two daughters. More than 50,000 people are estimated by the U.N. to have lost their lives in the disaster, including some of Bektas’ own friends.

Diego Vara: Lajeado, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil

Paulo Ricardo Siqueira Santos, 65, is sitting in his car. At first glance, it seems like perhaps he is relaxing, listening to the rain. Then we see what looks like a large pile of debris behind him.

Santos had just a little earlier been using a broom and a hose to try to remove a layer of thick, brown mud that had swept through his house and covered almost all his belongings after the Taquari River burst its banks in September.

The flooding in southern Brazil was triggered by a tropical cyclone that killed dozens of people and left thousands homeless.

In Santos’ neighborhood, there was also the ever-present threat of crime and robbery, said photographer Diego Vara.

After rescuing what he could, Santos “chose to spend the night sleeping in his car parked in front of his house and next to the rubble removed by him during his work, in a kind of rest and vigil,” Vara said.

Jose Luis Gonzalez: El Paso, Texas, USA

Gonzalez spent much of 2023 documenting how migrants from around the world desperate for a better life seek to cross the border from Mexico into the United States.

The migrants Gonzalez portrays have generally left everything behind. Many have traveled for months without a clear idea about what awaits them.

“It is a daily occurrence at the border to see asylum-seeking migrants trying to cross into the United States, and yet, I am always amazed to learn the stories behind the people,” said Gonzalez.

He seeks to tell their stories in unexpected ways.

In March 2023, he photographed a family from Guatemala crossing through shrubs that had sprouted up after the recent rainy season.

“Their faces looked tired, but they didn’t stop. When they managed to cross the Rio Grande, they passed through a gap in the barbed wire and then joined the hundreds of asylum-seeking migrants who had been waiting for days to be processed,” he said.

In May, he was taking photos of such migrants waiting to be processed. At night, a sandstorm began blowing and he returned to see how they were faring, photographing them from the distance and framed by spools of the barbed wire that lines the border.

“They couldn’t open their eyes without protection; some covered their faces with their clothing, and others with blankets,” he recounted. “Some migrants sought tree branches to shield their faces from the wind.”

And yet, as the storm blew, more migrants arrived to join the line, said Gonzalez.

Stelios Misinas: Cape Sounion, Greece

The moon looks bigger when it is on the horizon – an optical illusion – and redder, because its light travels a longer distance through the atmosphere, shedding the shorter, bluer wavelengths.

Stelios Misinas took advantage of this to snap a stunning image of an apparently giant full moon rising next to the Temple of Poseidon in Cape Sounion.

“Before taking this image, I spent time scouting the location, considering the best vantage points and anticipating the moon’s ascent,” he said.

The convergence of the full moon and the Temple of Poseidon, which dates back to the 5th century B.C., presented a rare and visually captivating opportunity, said Misinas.

“This image reinforced the power of photography to transcend time and capture the timeless beauty of both nature and human achievement.” (This story has been refiled to correct the photographer’s name in the section ‘Lisi Niesner: Laboe, Germany’)

(Photography by Reuters, Writing by Rosalba O’Brien, Editing by Jonathan Oatis)