The "2020 Hindsight" book cover.
The Here & Now

Learning to breathe again: New book looks back at a painful year in Santa Cruz County

THE HERE & NOW: News photographers Shmuel Thaler and Kevin Painchaud’s images are the main attractions in ‘2020 Hindsight,’ a comprehensive look at how a community survived a traumatic year.

She kneels, her right knee touching the asphalt at the very point where Pacific Avenue and Front Street converge in downtown Santa Cruz.

Her name is Joy Flynn, and in Kevin Painchaud’s photo, she’s holding a stark hand-lettered sign on which is the tragically adaptable, three-word mantra of 2020:

I can’t breathe.

When you look through the newly published, locally produced chronicle of that painful and dramatic year, “2020 Hindsight,” it’s striking how durable and resonant that simple phrase is when processing the traumas of 2020.

Kevin Painchaud's image of Joy Flynn holding an 'I can't breathe' sign is among the cover photos of '2020 Hindsight'.

Most directly, “I can’t breathe” was George Floyd’s final words before his death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer last May, and those words capture, with blunt force, the horror and frustration of a long, seemingly endless string of similar deaths of Black people at the hand of police.

But “I can’t breathe” also works as the epitaph for the COVID-19 pandemic, at the heart of which is, after all, a relentless and deadly respiratory disease. In another context, it’s also the cry of those who have protested the compulsory use of the year’s most potent symbol, the protective face mask.

During the ruinous CZU fires last summer, “I can’t breathe” took on a literal and ominous relevance to those in Santa Cruz County living with choking smoke and orange skies. Metaphorically speaking, for a large segment of the voting population in Santa Cruz County, the phrase captured the feeling of anxiety of living under an unpredictable and hostile president.

And finally, “I can’t breathe” is often the first response of anyone who has to face sudden and incomprehensible loss, whether their home from a fire or a loved one from a dreaded disease.

Now, when we are all finally catching our breath again, here comes “2020 Hindsight,” a book project that was a collaborative effort of close to a hundred people to attempt to give some perspective to the traumas of that terrible year, all through the lens of the people of Santa Cruz County.

The book may have been a group project, but the leader of the parade in this case was Shmuel Thaler, the long-time Santa Cruz Sentinel news photographer and a dear friend of mine for many years. (I also played a role in the book, writing the foreword and helping collect the essays contained in it).

The new book is full of penetrating stories and perspectives of the year from a wide variety of writers—former mayor Justin Cummings, county election official Gail Pellerin, physician Misty Navarro, young activist Esabella Bonner and many more.

The Santa Cruz photojournalists behind the dazzling new book ‘2020 Hindsight’ talk about their experiences in live...

But “2020 Hindsight” is best understood as a photo book and a testament to the work of Shmuel and Kevin, maybe the two most reliable witnesses to the year’s madness as it unfolded in our county. As a visual document, the book provides a remarkably comprehensive look at the shared traumas of 2020, from close ups of grinning health-care workers behind masks, to high-in-the-sky drone shots giving the scope and breadth of the protests that erupted after Floyd’s death.

The first photo in the book is Shmuel’s now famous image of Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills kneeling alongside Mayor Cummings, a shot that vaulted into the national conversation about police and race. By Shmuel’s count, the image was shared close to 400,000 times on social media.

Among Kevin Painchaud's images of the CZU Lightning Complex fires.
Among Kevin Painchaud’s images of the CZU Lightning Complex fires in “2020 Hindsight,” which he produced alongside Santa Cruz Sentinel photographer Shmuel Thaler.

Kevin Painchaud was, at the time, working alongside Shmuel at the Sentinel. Later that year, he came our visual journalism contributor at Lookout Santa Cruz. Kevin’s iconic shot of Joy Flynn was taken on the same day and just feet away from Shmuel’s equally iconic shot of the white police chief and the Black mayor.

It was originally Kevin’s idea to do a book looking back at the year, at a point when the year wasn’t even half over and the catastrophic CZU fires were still more than two months into the future.

Kevin’s original idea had nothing to do with the pandemic: “We were doing so many protests and marches and event” he told me, “originally it was just going to be about Black Lives Matter.”

Then came one of the worst disasters in Santa Cruz County history and the book became a different animal. Then, it became an attempt to address the enormity of the year — the fires, the pandemic, the social-justice protests, the election, even leaving room for other important milestones that didn’t fit perfectly into the various themes. County Sheriff’s Deputy Steve Ryan, for instance, penned a tribute to his friend and colleague Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller who was killed in the line of duty in June.

The finished book reminds many of us old-timers of a similar book published in the wake of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, published by the Sentinel (Shmuel was a big contributor to that book as well). But while the earthquake book was published on the Sentinel’s dime, “2020 Hindsight” was a community effort, funded in large part by philanthropists Rowland and Pat Rebele, and George Ow Jr. and his family, as well as big contributions from Community Foundation Santa Cruz County and Community Printers, who donated their services to make it happen.

All proceeds of the book go to the Community Foundation’s ongoing fund for those displaced by the CZU fires. And about 3,400 books will be made available free to the county’s high-school students to use as part of the schools’ history curriculum.

I remember in the early discussions of the book project in early summer that Shmuel mentioned the wild card of the upcoming fire season. “I’m not clairvoyant,” he told me, “but I had this inkling, given that all that happened this year, how could we not have a horrendous, traumatic fire season.”

The fires, he said, in a normal year would warrant a memorial book on their own. But now, they’re just part of a year that no one wants to live through again.

Where to get
  • General
    How to buy a copy of '2020 Hindsight'
    “2020 Hindsight: Looking Back on a Tumultuous Year In Santa Cruz County” is available at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave. Copies also can be ordered online at All proceeds go to Community Foundation Santa Cruz County’s wildfire relief fund.

“So much happened (in 2020),” said Shmuel who himself spent 12-hour days for two weeks on the ground photographing the CZU fires. “But we just can’t wallow in the pain. I have no idea what it’s like myself to lose my home, or to lose a loved one to COVID. So, I’m not telling anyone how to deal with their loss or their pain.

“But for a lot of us, we need to make sense of it. And we need to do something good and try to come through this year in a better space than where we were in the middle of it.”

He could have said, we need to learn to breathe again.