Best Of 2019: NPR's Favorite Illustrations and Photos Here are images that resonated from the year: photos of families facing difficult decisions on the U.S. border, illustrations showing the struggles of student loan debt and otherworldly portraits.
NPR logo Favorite Photos And Illustrations Of 2019

Favorite Photos And Illustrations Of 2019

Emem, 2018, from Infinite Essence Mikael Owunna hide caption

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Mikael Owunna

Emem, 2018, from Infinite Essence

Mikael Owunna

This year NPR created and commissioned photographs and illustrations for stories focusing on politics to education to global health to national and international news. The Picture Show featured projects ranging from climate change to cultural identity to otherworldly portraits.

Illustrations captured student loan debt struggles, the effects of pumping in the trans community and how medical schools are teaching students to navigate pain management amid the opioid crisis. We commissioned a Web comic to illustrate how the U.S. military launched a cyberattack on ISIS.

Photographers met people fleeing Venezuela and a family trying to rebuild their home after the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif. This year, NPR's Claire Harbage attended a camel beauty contest in Mongolia, met a Honduran family facing a difficult decision on the U.S.-Mexico border and visited a cattle ranch near a privately funded wildlife preserve in Montana.

Here is a look back at a collection of memorable stories from 2019.


Student Loan Borrowers With Disabilities Aren't Getting Help They Were Promised

Zoë van Dijk for NPR
Student Loan Borrowers With Disabilities Aren't Getting Help They Were Promised
Zoë van Dijk for NPR

Hundreds of thousands of borrowers are eligible to have their student loans erased because a disability keeps them from working. NPR found many will likely never get the debt relief they're owed.


Asylum-Seekers Waiting In Mexico Navigate A Shifting U.S. Court System

Tania and Joseph's 3-year-old daughter has a scar on her chest from heart surgery. The family has lived in shelters for months while waiting for their time in court. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

Tania and Joseph's 3-year-old daughter has a scar on her chest from heart surgery. The family has lived in shelters for months while waiting for their time in court.

Claire Harbage/NPR

For one family fleeing violence in Honduras, the past is terrifying, the present is confusing and the future is uncertain. Earlier this year they visited an El Paso, Texas, immigration court as they seek asylum.

They've lived for months in shelters with their two young daughters and son, waiting for their time in court. Their youngest daughter, 3 years old, has a scar on her chest from heart surgery. El Paso's Catholic bishop tried to help them win permission two weeks ago to stay in the United States. But after a few days in El Paso, they were again sent back to Mexico.


If You're Often Angry Or Irritable, You May Be Depressed

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Physicians have been taught to look for signs of hopelessness, sadness and lack of motivation to help them diagnose depression. But anger as a depression symptom is less often noticed or addressed.


Chronicles Of A Venezuelan Exodus: More Families Flee The Crisis On Foot Every Day

People walk from Venezuela to Colombia through an unauthorized border crossing in Villa del Rosario, Colombia. Some 3.4 million Venezuelans are seeking refuge abroad, with more than 1 million of them in neighboring Colombia, according to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. Many people are leaving Venezuela by foot. Ryan Kellman/NPR hide caption

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Ryan Kellman/NPR

People walk from Venezuela to Colombia through an unauthorized border crossing in Villa del Rosario, Colombia. Some 3.4 million Venezuelans are seeking refuge abroad, with more than 1 million of them in neighboring Colombia, according to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. Many people are leaving Venezuela by foot.

Ryan Kellman/NPR

As Venezuelans flee their country's deepening economic and humanitarian crisis, Latin America is trying to cope with the largest number of refugees on record. Some 3.4 million Venezuelans are seeking refuge abroad, with the largest number in neighboring Colombia.

Earlier this year, an All Things Considered team traveled along one of the Venezuelans' frequent pathways from the Colombian border city of Cúcuta south to Colombia's capital, Bogotá, and discovered dramatic stories of an exodus that began a few years back and has now shifted. What used to be primarily migrant men looking for jobs over the border, relief workers say, are now increasingly groups made up of women and children — whole families who feel they have no choice but to go. By foot. Those traveling on foot, as most are, have been given a collective name: los Caminantes. The Walkers.


'Painting' The Ghost Forests Of The Mid-Atlantic Coast

A dead tree stands in a saltwater marsh in the Delaware Bay near Cape May in New Jersey. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

A dead tree stands in a saltwater marsh in the Delaware Bay near Cape May in New Jersey.

Claire Harbage/NPR

Harbage, the NPR photographer, uses watercolors sensitized to light to make ethereal images of dying trees on the Chesapeake and Delaware bays. As sea levels rise, these haunting sights will only continue to grow.


For Trans Women, Silicone 'Pumping' Can Be A Blessing And A Curse

Trans people in the U.S. have turned to underground silicone injections for decades. And it has particularly impacted trans women of color and those living in poverty. Anke Gladnick for NPR hide caption

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Anke Gladnick for NPR

Trans people in the U.S. have turned to underground silicone injections for decades. And it has particularly impacted trans women of color and those living in poverty.

Anke Gladnick for NPR

"Pumping" refers to silicone injections, a kind of underground plastic surgery. Turning to pumping has been a reality for transgender women — especially trans women of color — for decades.

"And I'm not gonna lie to you," Ruby Corado says, her voice breaking. "In my new body, I felt so beautiful. I felt so together. I felt like I fit in. And even though I was one of the most educated people in my circle, I still went ahead and gave in."

She pauses, tearing up. "And I ended up with a very high price to pay."


Big Money Is Building A New Kind Of National Park In The Great Plains

Conni French is surrounded by horses as she goes about her daily chores on the cattle ranch. "I see them coming in with big money, buying up ranches and walking over the top of the people who are already here," she says. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

Conni French is surrounded by horses as she goes about her daily chores on the cattle ranch. "I see them coming in with big money, buying up ranches and walking over the top of the people who are already here," she says.

Claire Harbage/NPR

A privately funded, nonprofit organization is creating a 3.2 million-acre wildlife sanctuary — American Prairie Reserve — in northeastern Montana, an area long known as cattle country.

But the reserve is facing fierce opposition from many locals because to build it, the organization is slowly purchasing ranches from willing sellers, phasing out the cows and replacing them with wild bison. Those private properties are then stitched together with vast tracts of neighboring public lands to create one giant, rewilded prairie. The organization has purchased close to 30 properties so far, but it needs at least 50 more.

"I see them coming in with big money, buying up ranches and walking over the top of the people who are already here," says ranch owner Conni French. "For them to be successful in their goals, we can't be here, and that's not OK with us."


Families, Not Just Students, Feel The Weight Of The Student Loan Crisis

Delphine Lee/ NPR
Middle-income family in debt.
Delphine Lee/ NPR

For many college students settling into their dorms, the path to campus — and paying for college — started long ago. And it likely involved their families.

The pressure to send kids to college, coupled with the realities of tuition, has fundamentally changed the experience of being middle class in America, says Caitlin Zaloom, an anthropologist and associate professor at New York University. It's changed the way that middle class parents raise their children, she adds, and shaped family dynamics along the way.

Zaloom interviewed dozens of families taking out student loans for her latest book, Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost. She defines those families as middle class because they make too much to qualify for federal aid — but too little to pay the full cost of a degree at most colleges. For many, the burden of student debt raises big questions about what a degree is for.


The Camp Fire Burned Their Home, But Strong Family Ties Kept Them In Paradise

Chelsea Isaacs sits on the couch in her RV with her 2-year-old twin daughters, Harper and Riley, and her mother, Kim Schwartz, on June 11 in Magalia, Calif. They have been living for almost a year in an RV after the Camp Fire destroyed their home in 2018. A month after their house burned down, Chelsea found out she was pregnant with a second set of twins with her partner, Noah. Rachel Bujalski for NPR hide caption

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Rachel Bujalski for NPR

Chelsea Isaacs sits on the couch in her RV with her 2-year-old twin daughters, Harper and Riley, and her mother, Kim Schwartz, on June 11 in Magalia, Calif. They have been living for almost a year in an RV after the Camp Fire destroyed their home in 2018. A month after their house burned down, Chelsea found out she was pregnant with a second set of twins with her partner, Noah.

Rachel Bujalski for NPR

Chelsea and Noah Isaacs were busy new parents of twin daughters when they lost their home in the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif. That same day — Nov. 8, 2018 — Chelsea discovered she was pregnant again; later she would learn it was with another set of twins.

"All of those things kind of created this perfect storm of appreciation for what I've got, but then at the same time [there was] this feeling of, 'How is this all going to work?' that was really overwhelming initially," Chelsea said.


The Dress Hasn't Changed, But The Girls Have

Six of the 50 Azalea Trail Maids gather under oak trees. The dresses come in six different colors, but only the queen of the court wears pink. Adair Freeman Rutledge hide caption

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Adair Freeman Rutledge

Six of the 50 Azalea Trail Maids gather under oak trees. The dresses come in six different colors, but only the queen of the court wears pink.

Adair Freeman Rutledge

Photographer Adair Rutledge returned to Alabama to learn how the Azalea Trail Maids are redefining what it means to be a symbol of the South — while they wear a 50-pound, custom-made antebellum dress.


How To Teach Future Doctors About Pain In The Midst Of The Opioid Crisis

Students in medical schools are about to become doctors in the midst of an opioid crisis. That's why one top U.S. medical school is rethinking what to teach them about pain and pain management. Tracy Lee for NPR hide caption

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Tracy Lee for NPR

Students in medical schools are about to become doctors in the midst of an opioid crisis. That's why one top U.S. medical school is rethinking what to teach them about pain and pain management.

Tracy Lee for NPR

The next generation of doctors will start their careers at a time when physicians are feeling pressure to limit prescriptions for opioid painkillers.

Yet every day, they'll face patients who are hurting from injuries, surgical procedures or disease. Around 20% of adults in the U.S. live with chronic pain.

That's why some medical students felt a little apprehensive as they gathered recently for a mandatory, four-day course at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore — home to one of the top medical schools in the country.

The subject of the course? Pain.


Where Camels Become Beauty Queens: Inside Mongolia's Biggest Camel Festival

Herders from across Mongolia's Gobi Desert gather for a festival to celebrate the two-humped Bactrian camel. The event is held in early March before the birthing season begins. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

Herders from across Mongolia's Gobi Desert gather for a festival to celebrate the two-humped Bactrian camel. The event is held in early March before the birthing season begins.

Claire Harbage/NPR

Humps and hair. That's the scene in Bulgan Soum, a tiny Mongolian town in the middle of the Gobi Desert about 160 miles north of the Chinese border.

Bactrian camels arrive in all directions on foot, bearing bundled-up riders wedged between their two humps. It's early March. While the sky is cloudless, the wind can pick up quickly. Officially called the Thousand Camel Festival, the crowd that arrives for the kickoff appears to consist of 100 camels.

The two-day festival begins with a camel beauty pageant.


How The U.S. Hacked ISIS

Neil stands in a room with military cyber operators from Joint Task Force ARES to launch an operation that would become one of the largest and longest offensive cyber operations in U.S. military history. Josh Kramer for NPR hide caption

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Josh Kramer for NPR

Neil stands in a room with military cyber operators from Joint Task Force ARES to launch an operation that would become one of the largest and longest offensive cyber operations in U.S. military history.

Josh Kramer for NPR

In 2016, the U.S. launched a classified military cyberattack against ISIS to bring down its media operation. NPR interviewed nearly a dozen people who lived it.


Throughline: Resistance Is Futile

Angela Hsieh
Fear of Technology
Angela Hsieh

Artificial intelligence, gene modification and self-driving cars are causing fear and uncertainty about how technology is changing our lives. But humans have struggled to accept innovations throughout history. In this episode, we explore three innovations that transformed the world and show how people have adapted — and ask whether we can do the same today.


PHOTOS: After The Storm, Haitians In The Bahamas Depend On The Kindness Of Strangers

A month after Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas, Sherrine Petit Homme LaFrance gets a hug from husband Ferrier Petit Homme. The storm destroyed their home on Grand Abaco Island. They are now living with China Laguerre in Nassau. Cheryl Diaz Meyer for NPR hide caption

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Cheryl Diaz Meyer for NPR

A month after Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas, Sherrine Petit Homme LaFrance gets a hug from husband Ferrier Petit Homme. The storm destroyed their home on Grand Abaco Island. They are now living with China Laguerre in Nassau.

Cheryl Diaz Meyer for NPR

Sherrine Petit Homme LaFrance was crying on the side of a road when China Laguerre spotted her. Hurricane Dorian destroyed LaFrance's newly constructed house in Great Abaco Island on the northern edge of the Bahamas the same night she moved in. That was on Sept. 1.

She had nowhere to go. So Laguerre invited her to come stay at the home she shares with her parents and her brother.

LaFrance is one of thousands of Haitians who lived in Abaco but were displaced to Nassau after the storm. The government's policy is to keep evacuees off Abaco until power, water and housing is restored.


For Remote Communities In Scotland's Outer Hebrides, Mobile Libraries Are A Lifeline

The mobile library arrives in Hushinish, which lies at the end of a 12-mile, single-track road. When school is not in session, public transport is only available on Fridays. Celeste Noche hide caption

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Celeste Noche

The mobile library arrives in Hushinish, which lies at the end of a 12-mile, single-track road. When school is not in session, public transport is only available on Fridays.

Celeste Noche

In Stornoway, the biggest town in Scotland's Outer Hebrides islands, a yellow van sits on a narrow, one-way street. The Gaelic word leabharlann is painted on the front, back and sides, with its English translation, "library," on the front and sides.

Driver Iain Mackenzie has loaded his books in the van, organized his customers' orders and is preparing for his last run of the week on the island of Lewis and Harris. The 16-year-old van runs three days a week, covering more than 800 miles of rugged roads to deliver books to more than 800 residents.


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