The 20th century is the first to be chronicled in full by the camera: the story told in these extraordinary, defining images of the past 100 years is one of humanity and hope for ever at odds with evil and desolation.
This sequence of photographs is an attempt to outline the history of the 20th century as the camera (with a great variety of photographers attached) has seen it. It has in some ways been the most thoughtless, but in other ways the most thoughtful, hundred years in human history - in which all kinds of moulds were broken and dies cast, but offering nothing to provide us with any firm grounds for either bright hope or black despair.

My main worry with this collection has been the number of violent or distressing images agitating to get in. The century has of course been quite horribly violent (compared with the 19th after 1815, that is), but the trouble is that pictures of man's inhumanity to man are very often the strongest and push others aside. They also arouse conflicting emotions in us. The best provoke our pity and human sympathy, but can also simultaneously make us feel satisfaction in our own detachment and safety - as well as the ever-threatening schadenfreude which is not always exorcised immediately it is felt.

To underplay unpleasantness would have been wrong in any case, and a correct balance has seemed impossible to strike. I had hoped the clouds would lift just a little in the Eighties and Nineties but they descended even further, so messages of hope must still be just around the corner.

I hope that this will provide both nourishment for thought and a stimulus for the imagination, and that it will encourage younger people to despise as well as fear war and violence, and any kind of exploitation or persecution of man or woman by man or woman. And also to realise that the best documentary photography is about the subject more than the photographer, though of course it must to some extent be both.

Captions: 1968, a woman flees Saigon during the Tet offensive

The extent and ferocity of the Tet offensive shocked the American public, particularly the sight of dead Vietcong soldiers lying so close to the door of the US Embassy in Saigon. Prominent critics alleged that the conflict in Vietnam could not be won. The anti-war movement gained momentum and vast numbers of Americans of all backgrounds began to rally behind the political campaigns of anti-war candidates. President Johnson decided not to seek re-election and declared he would devote his remaining time in office to finding an "honourable" way out of the war.

Russian revolution, English suffragettes

1905, Bloody Sunday, Russia

Father George Gapon, a Russian orthodox priest who had become an influential trade union leader, led workers and their families to the Winter Palace in St Petersburg to deliver a petition to Tsar Nicholas II demanding reforms. The troops responded to the petition by opening fire on them, killing over 100. This massacre of peaceful demonstrators triggered the 1905 revolution and exploded the popular myth that the Tsar was the loving, benevolent father of the Russian people. Student demonstrations, worker insurrections and mutinies in both the army and navy followed.

1913, suffragette arrest, London

British suffragettes are arrested after chaining themselves to the railings of Buckingham Palace. The militant tactics of the suffragettes often backfired, sometimes with frightening consequences for the women involved in the protest. Widespread public hostility towards the suffragettes enabled the government to employ the police freely against them. Eventually the suffragettes' methods alienated pro-suffrage Members of Parliament and antagonised non-militant women; more importantly, working-class men and women did not join the movement en masse as predicted. 1906, elephants take tea, Paris

An elephants' tea party at the Hippodrome theatre in Paris. Trained elephants, the largest surviving land animals, were impressive examples of animal domestication. Their awesome size made their trained displays of human-like behaviour a wildly popular attraction in Europe's great cultural centres in the early 20th century.

World war, slaves to ideology

1919, lynching in Omaha, Nebraska

An African-American is cremated by a lynch mob, after hundreds of whites had stormed the courthouse where he was being held and taken justice into their own hands. The man, who had been accused of assaulting a white girl, was mutilated and then shot several times before being burned. In post civil-war America, lynching became the preferred method of summary execution - three-quarters of all victims were black.

1915, soldier in the Austrian trenches

A soldier finds a moment of peace in the morning to read prayers. By 1915 the majority of soldiers, and even the most optimistic military planners, realised that a long war was now inevitable. Nothing in human history had prepared the world for a war of such vast dimensions. 1921, famine victims, Samara, Russia

Lenin's attempt to accomplish economic revolution, while waging civil war with the remaining forces of the White Army, had disastrous consequences. Most industries stopped for lack of materials, fuel and labour, while the policy of requisitioning led to mass starvation. 1920, George V at the Epsom Derby George V politely ignores a Gypsy beggar. The king made great strides in bringing the monarchy closer to the people, and made regular appearances at sporting events and public occasions. In an era of huge social change, he contributed greatly to Britain's relative political stability.

The Third Reich: victims and villains

1942, Berlin after a British air raid

In early 1942 the British War Cabinet decided to intensify Allied air strikes, which were designed to crush the morale of the German population, particularly that of industrial workers. Air Marshal Arthur "Bomber" Harris took over Bomber Command. Harris was convinced that massive aerial bombardment of urban areas and civilian populations would result in a swift Allied victory, precluding the necessity for a mass land invasion.

1945, Nazi guard clears bodies at Belsen

An estimated six million Jews died in concentration camps. A further one million people including Gypsies, political prisoners, Soviet POWs, homosexuals and other "undesirables" also perished. On 15 April the first Allied forces, in the form of a British tank unit, entered the concentration camp at Belsen in north-west Germany. They counted about 35,000 corpses within the camp.

1942, Crimea

Survivors of Nazi atrocities search for relatives. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 the SS were instructed to eliminate all Jews and Soviet political commissars. In practice this meant these groups and all those deemed uncooperative with German occupation forces were rounded up, transported to isolated areas and shot. After 1942 "gas vans" were used to murder women and children, apparently in response to SS leader Heinrich Himmler's aversion to seeing women executed by firing squad. 1945, Nazi suicides

A mother is photographed just after she has killed her children and just before killing herself. Her Nazi husband was already dead. In the days leading up to the Allied victory and in its immediate aftermath, many Nazis took their own lives rather than accept the consequences of Germany's defeat. They preferred to follow the example of Hitler and Goebbels, who killed his six children before committing suicide with his wife.

Hollywood glamour, Cold War truths

1959, Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor in Joseph Mankiewicz's screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams' 1958 play Suddenly Last Summer. Taylor received one of her many Academy-award nominations for her portrayal of a woman who witnesses the shocking death of her cousin. A story of pederasty, lobotomy and cannibalism, the film shocked conservative sensibilities in Fifties America.

1950, South Korea

After the Second World War, Korea was jointly occupied by the US and the Soviet Union, with the territory north of the 38th parallel under Soviet control and the southern half of the country under American administration. Preparations for independence faltered when occupying leaders on both sides claimed sovereignty over the whole country, and the situation deteriorated rapidly. The world's attention was gradually drawn to the desperate plight of POWs in the Korean War. Large numbers of prisoners from both sides died due to inadequate food, water and housing in the POW camps, or by summary execution.

1956, Budapest, secret police under attack

The Hungarian uprising began on 23 October 1956 when Hungary's Internal Security Police (AVH) opened fire on a peaceful crowd of university students in Budapest demonstrating for democracy and the return of the liberal-minded Imre Nagy as Communist Party leader. In the chaotic aftermath of the shootings, factory workers supplied the crowd with weapons and panicking guards surrendered their arms. Revenge killings followed and within days a general uprising against the repressive Communist regime spread across the country.

Troops in Ireland, a tragedy in Japan

1970, Londonderry

The landing of British troops in Northern Ireland in 1969 was the catalyst for ominous developments, not least of which was the split in the Irish Republican Army. Delegates to an IRA convention decided, in view of reforms in the province, to recognise the London, Belfast and Dublin parliaments, but hardliners repudiated the move. A breakaway faction formed the Provisional IRA who began to portray themselves as protectors of the Catholic community against the repressive British army, seen to be a tool of the Protestant government in Northern Ireland.

1972, Japan

During the early Fifties, pollution from the effluent waters of a chemical plant in the city of Minimata in Japan caused an outbreak of mercury poisoning among the town's fishermen and their families. The disease leads to a progressive weakening of the muscles, loss of vision, eventual paralysis and in some cases coma and death. By 1971, 121 cases of "Minimata disease" had been confirmed. Of these, 47 died. By 1993 the number of reported cases exceeded 3,000.

Disaster averted, Brazil's new gold rush

1988, Maui, Hawaii

On 28 April 1988 an Aloha Airlines Boeing 737-200 cruising at 7,000m (24,000ft) over the island of Maui in the Pacific Ocean, suddenly lost an entire fuselage section in the upper cabin area. Remarkably, the pilot was able to execute a successful emergency landing. A flight attendant was the only fatality, swept out of the aircraft during the explosive decompression. Sixty-nine of the 95 passengers sustained mainly minor injuries from falling debris and wind burn. Subsequent investigations determined that metal fatigue in the ageing Boeing had caused the fuselage to rupture.

1989, gold mine, Brazil

The discovery of large gold deposits in the Serra Pelada region of northern Brazil sparked a "gold rush" in the Eighties. Attracted by dreams of riches and freedom, 200,000 garimpeiros (prospectors) flooded into the area from all over the country. The new arrivals, many of whom had fled wretched living conditions in other parts of Brazil, were forced to live in grisly camp settlements where crime, prostitution and disease were rife. Mutual animosity between the miners and the poorly paid military police who controlled the gold mines frequently boiled over into violence.

1998, USS Enterprise

On 16 December 1998 American and British aeroplanes launched a massive bombing campaign against Iraq, following a report by the UN chief weapons inspector stationed there that Saddam Hussein was not co-operating with arms inspectors. The attack, named Operation Desert Fox, was said to be necessary by both British and American officials. After four days of bombings, the two governments called a halt, claiming that their objective of "degrading" Saddam Hussein's ability to make and use weapons of mass destruction had been achieved. The UN and several major world leaders expressed serious opposition to the strikes.

1998, childbirth, Sudan

More than 1.5 million people died in the civil war that had been devastating Sudan since 1983, when the mainly Muslim Arabic government in Sudan's capital Khartoum tried to impose Islamic law. Rebels in southern Sudan desiring autonomy resisted and the ensuing war devastated the economy and caused almost unimaginable hardships for the civilian population. Soldiers on both sides of the conflict robbed ordinary people of their cattle, destroyed crops and sent them fleeing from their land. Unable to support themselves, millions of desperately hungry Sudanese found themselves constantly on the move looking for food.

Reproduced from `Century', published by Phaidon Press, pounds 29.95 1999 Phaidon Press Limited