TIME’s Best Photojournalism of 2021

SRetrospectively, the ome years seem nothing more than a swirl of movement and color. No one element is dominant. Some others feel more like mountains we’ll be living under for the long haul. This year’s ending feels more like an annual checkerboard. However, there are more than two colors to it and the squares are staggered at random heights. Some towers, others pits and some that can trip people.

In 2021, it was difficult to get your feet under you.

This is evident from the top images taken by TIME photojournalists over the past 12 months. The same U.S. Capitol building that one day was under assault by supporters of a losing candidate—the arm of one intruder finding leverage on marble balustrade; another reclining in a ransacked office—reverted, just two weeks later, back to its role as ceremonial backdrop for the peaceful transfer of power.

A retreat would be welcomed (and as fragile as) a newborn coming off of a ventilator when the COVID-19 epidemic began. However, strife followed in the return of semi-normal life. There were protests over abortion rights and Latin Americans who had been kept in the limbo by migration.

Bad news! Climate change became easier to photograph. This was evident in the heat wave that made an Oregon Zoo polar bear’s best friend, an ice maker. Cool buoyancy was the better news: A celebrated chef harvested seagrass from his kitchen, while a worker is training to be a safety instructor for offshore wind farm workers by bobbing in North Atlantic.

It was 2021. No previous image of a politician’s spouse captured what Doug Emhoff threw off when, while touring Elizabeth, N.J. America’s Second Gentleman came upon a group of high school students doing yoga, and struck a tree pose in a blazer and slacks. And what Ruddy Roye caught in a Minneapolis hotel ballroom when the family of George Floyd heard the word “guilty” in the trial of Derek Chauvin looked a lot like transcendence.

But momentum, although it was possible to spot progress by 2021 in some cases, proved harder. One image cannot capture the complex year in one shot. But the photograph on the cover a May TIME cover—of a COVID-19 victim being carried across the scorched earth of a New Delhi crematorium—managed to contain at least the iconography of the overlapping crises that made it such a challenge to navigate.—Karl Vick

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