TIME’s Best Portraits of 2021

FAces always tell stories, and often it is more complex than what words can express. The portraits TIME has commissioned over the past year speak volumes about where we’ve been and what we’ve been feeling throughout 2021. It was a year full of hope and exhaustion, but also a time of cautionary optimism. We knew by January that many COVID-19 vaccines were approved. This meant that we could expect a return to normality soon. The triumphant promise of this vaccine was thwarted by an increase in the death rate, which is a result of both vaccination hesitancy and the rise of variants. No wonder we’re all stressed out.

And yet the faces in these pictures don’t speak of despair, even in cases where these subjects are facing tremendous hardship and loss. All of us must at one time or another cope with circumstances that seem insurmountable—but somehow we manage, and empathy wrought from our shared experiences is what shapes us as human beings. To see Jody Marquess, of Phoenix, Ariz., standing in the room where his stepfather died during this year’s deadly heatwave, is to bear witness to the weight of grief. The image shows Festus and Veronica Parkolwa from Kenya, who are standing at the door of the house that was once their home. We have to face the reality of how climate change is affecting countries across the globe. These are events we believe can never happen to us—until they do. Photography allows us to communicate with each other, to see the faces of strangers and to recognize parts of ourselves.

These faces also reflect joy and courage. The incandescent portrait Amanda Gorman shows the spirit of the Arts in the wider sense. Amanda Gorman’s stirring inauguration poetry ignited a passion for poetry in youth everywhere. It also represents how poetry, music and painting are preserved because their lives are cherished by future generations. Pop singer Olivia Rodrigo, just 18 years old, captivated teenagers everywhere—even former teenagers—with an album of confessional songs that gave us all permission to vent our bottled anxiety. Her portrait shows a young woman who’s self-assured but not cocky, just uncertain enough about life and the world to help us navigate it too. Then there’s Simone Biles, who can achieve physical feats most of us can barely dream of. But her eyes meet the lens, reminding us this is a young girl who had the guts to stand out from the crowd at the Tokyo Olympics. By taking care of her own mental health and emotions, she inspired others to do the same.

These portraits showcase people whose successes have delighted the world as well as drawn harsh criticism. Then there are the people whose skills, knowledge and courage have saved many lives. To look at the face of scientist Katalin Kariko is to see a person who, with her colleagues, would not give up until she’d cracked that code. Biochemistry and biology are like poetry. They speak directly to the cells and how they function. And so we move forward into 2022, but not before casting one last look at the faces of those who helped us get here.—Stephanie Zacharek

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