Memorable images of 2021 capture a reality of our lives

They also capture some bizarre unrealities that may not recede in 2022

We will all remember the lockdowns, Covid-19 tests and other disruptions to our lives in 2021, but the year was also full of extraordinary and sometimes inspirational images. One of the most memorable was also the most bizarre, the QAnon "shaman".

You will recall this tattooed and bearded Trump supporter wearing a buffalo head-dress, yowling at the heavens inside the home of American democracy, Washington’s Capitol building, as part of the violent protest against US President Joe Biden’s election victory. I suspect buffalo-man and his friends may haunt our future, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

First, the inspirational image of 2021 for me in Britain was also the saddest. Her Majesty the Queen sat alone in Windsor, socially distanced, wearing a mask, mourning the death of her life-companion Prince Philip. They spent 73 years together. The grief was obvious through the mask. So was the sense of duty and profound dignity of a monarch who has served the UK for seven decades and who spans the great generation of the Second World War through the end of the British empire and in to the 21st century information age.

At a time when some British politicians, including the prime minister, have often made the UK appear incapable of living up to the standards we expect from people in public life, the Queen has been faultless, a solid British rock in a sea of political foolishness.

Yet for many of us it was coronavirus itself which repeatedly supplied the most profound images of 2021.

We will remember the queues of those waiting to be vaccinated, or the faces of health care workers exhausted after long hours in hospital intensive care units.

And who can forget the lines on their cheeks as they took off their masks, images which – more than words – told us everything we need to know about the sacrifices nurses, doctors and other health workers make everyday on our behalf.

Quote
The Queen has been faultless, a solid British rock in a sea of political foolishness

There was a flip side to this, however. We also saw the images of irrational hatred from anti-vaccination protesters. Curiously those who most loudly trumpeted their so-called “libertarian" views in 2021 and claimed the right to their “personal choice” not to accept coronavirus vaccines were often violently furious that millions of other citizens had a different personal choice and welcomed the protection of vaccines.

In 2021 the word “libertarian” increasingly sounded like a synonym for “selfish” or perhaps just dim. One British anti-vaxxer group tried to storm what they thought were BBC headquarters in west London. Sadly these anti-vaxxer luminaries failed to notice that the BBC had moved out of the Television Centre complex a decade ago, in 2012. The same inability to get a grip on facts and reality led to images of another group of anti-vaxxers protesting at the Apple store in central London.

In the anti-vaxxer world, Bill Gates is supposed to be a controlling figure in the great vaccination conspiracy. Unfortunately for this theory Bill Gates is not involved in the vaccination programme, nor is he involved with Apple. Apple’s founder was Steve Jobs, who died a decade ago. But facts really don’t matter to conspiracy theorists, even if they do matter to the rest of us.

The stunning extreme weather images of 2021 surely proved even to the most recalcitrant climate change deniers that the threat to all human existence is real.

Floods – some deadly – hit Germany, Belgium, Myanmar, the US and other countries. Out-of-control fires destroyed vast areas in Siberia, Australia, California, Canada and elsewhere. Climate activists picketed Cop-26 in Glasgow demanding that governments do more, and yet despite the scientific evidence – and the images of destruction – the result was a somewhat half-hearted and disappointing agreement about real solutions. And the problems of governments to act bring us back to the QAnon "shaman" and the Capitol Hill riot, because that assault on US democracy casts a shadow over all of us in the year ahead.

The "shaman" like the anti-vaxxers, is not a joke. Together these images are emblems of a world in which fantasy and nonsense shout so loudly they risk drowning out reason, science, and traditional norms of behaviour. Donald Trump’s reaction to his defeat in November 2020’s presidential election, and the subsequent assault on the US Capitol in January 2021 led the US World Values Survey to note:

“Elections are the heart of liberal democracy. Losers voluntarily leave office. Winners assume rightful power. There is nothing in the US Constitution mandating that presidents concede graciously, but it is a centuries-old practice. When faith in these fundamental norms of democracy fades, when comity between opponents erodes, so does our civic culture.”

Faith in “fundamental norms” of decent and reasonable behaviour did indeed fade in 2021. The images of 2021 capture this reality for our lives. But they also capture the bizarre unreality of the lives of those whose irrational and sometimes violent behaviour will, unfortunately, still be with us in 2022, and beyond.

Published: December 27th 2021, 2:00 PM
Updated: December 28th 2021, 3:28 PM
Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National