TIME’s Top 10 Photos of 2021

EEvery November, TIME gathers together the entire TIME Photo team to select the top ten images from the thousands submitted by worldwide photographers since January. Our top 10 images can have striking compositions, be shocking, make news, and all the other things that are important. These images are so special that we find ourselves stopping to pay respect to their creators.

Continue reading: TIME’s Top 100 Photos of 2021

Photographers in such situations are deeply concerned about people and the places they photograph. They build connections far beyond one instant. Konstantinos Tsakalidis was a photographer who cared deeply about the safety of those he photographed during the Greek wildfires. Or Meridith Kohut, who has been on the front lines of the COVID-19 surge, working 15-18 hour days alongside the staff—something she says is crucial to building the kind of trust with the people in her photos and being allowed in the room when scenes unfold. Scott McIntyre who wanted to capture Zaila Avantgarde, Spelling Bee winner, simply because he loved it.

These 10 photographs tell the story a year filled with hardships and perseverance. They also show us glimpses into a world where it was often impossible to reach. These images and their creators show us how great photography can move, connect, and remind us all of our common humanity. —Kim Bubello and Ciara Nugent

‘A Truly Horrible Day in U.S. history’

Photographer Christopher Lee was on assignment for TIME in Washington on Jan. 6 to photograph President Donald Trump’s “Stop The Steal” rally. As soon as things escalated, Lee began weaving through crowds of Capitol police officers. “A couple photographers and I noticed how the energy was turning towards the inside of the building,” Lee recalls, “and we followed along as angry Trump supporters broke down windows to get in.”

Lee claims that he was astonished to find himself inside Capitol. He had never before been there and was afraid of his safety. At one point, the mob turned a corner and began shouting at a lone officer—who Lee later learnt was named Eugene Goodman—who blocked their way and held them off. “I think what made not only this particular image, but also all the images from that day, successful was creating an emotional and contextual picture of what it was like to be there at the Capitol on a truly horrible day in U.S. history,” Lee says. “I wanted to show not only the bravery of Officer Eugene Goodman but also who he was standing against and where he was doing it. I think all of that was in the picture.”

One officer would also be killed, five others would get hurt, more than 140 other officers would suffer injuries. Lee’s memory of how America was not prepared for the riots has stuck with him for months. “We all thought this could never happen here in America. It was as though we, the country, were invulnerable to insurrections by our own radicalized citizens. I hope that this day continues to be discussed and examined, with context as to how we got here and how we will continue as a country.”

‘There Wouldn’t Be Much Time’

On Aug. 26, two suicide bombers and a gunman launched an attack on Kabul airport, where hundreds of Afghans had flocked, trying to flee their country amid the U.S.’ chaotic military withdrawal. Together with 13 U.S. military personnel, more than 170 Afghan civilians died.

Two days later the Taliban had taken control of the airport’s main entrance and the guards were preventing anyone from getting in. Photographer Jim Huylebroek says he was also initially turned away “in a rather aggressive fashion.” But as the sun began to set and the blistering temperatures dropped, people started to disperse and Huylebroek decided he would try his luck one last time at the main entrance. “When I stated to the Taliban fighters manning the gate that I was a foreigner and why I was there, the commander responded to me in fluent English. That was unexpected and weirdly scary,” Huylebroek says. He guided me into the airport premises, just past the gate but I wasn’t allowed to photograph. As it was prayer time, all of the fighters were lined up wearing their American-style combat uniforms. I requested permission to take at most one picture. The commander agreed, so I looked around for a good angle, knowing there wouldn’t be much time.” The Talibs had gathered under the “Welcome to Kabul” sign at airport’s purple-lit entrance gate.

“In the end photography can be about perseverance,” Huylebroek says. “It took me all day in the blistering heat, and a few bruises to go with it to shoot only one scene, but I’m happy I pushed through.”

‘The Scale of the Tragedy’

Covering India’s COVID-19 crisis in April was emotionally exhausting for Saumya Khandelwal, whose image of the devastating second wave was featured on TIME’s international cover. “What we were witnessing was rare and tragic. I, as a photojournalist, had personal struggles too,” she recalls. “At this time, there was so much bad news about the pandemic and there were so many friends and family members who were struggling with COVID-19 themselves.”

Khandelwal’s assignment brought her to a crematorium in New Delhi, where she watched as Shivam Verma (in white PPE) and relatives carried the body of his sister-in-law, Bharti, 48, who died of COVID-19.

The family let her climb onto the roof of their home to take pictures. After briefly considering waiting to see if there were more funeral pyres, she decided not to. “It was too harsh, I thought, to put out in terms of visuals. I felt I was successful in putting across the scale of the tragedy without showing very graphic visuals,” she says. “[It was]Learning [moment] for me—when news is so much a cause of stress and grief for people, how do you approach it sensitively to help people deal with it?”

‘At the Mercy of their Enemy’

Ethiopia’s government has tried to suppress news of the civil war unfolding in the country’s northern Tigray region, in which all sides are accused of atrocities, by blocking media from entering affected areas. But in June, after covering Ethiopia’s election, photojournalist Finbarr O’Reilly and New York Times reporter Declan Walsh managed to slip through checkpoints to arrive at frontline positions held by Tigrayan rebels.

“We were the only journalists to witness from the front lines a cascade of Tigrayan victories that culminated in their retaking the region’s capital, altering the course of the war,” says O’Reilly. Soon, they met Tigrayan leaders that claimed to have captured thousands government soldiers. The government refuted this claim. “The Tigrayans granted us access and it was a remarkable scene with several thousand bedraggled Ethiopian soldiers being held under guard in a fenced, open-air compound,” he explains. “I’d never seen anything like it. The last time I could recall anything similar were photographs of prison camps during the Balkan wars.”

O’Reilly says he approached the images “more forensically than creatively,” making the most of the unusual access to document the scale of the site and the condition of individual prisoners. When the images were finally published, after a delay due to security concerns and Internet access, O’Reilly was unsure about how the government would react to the publication of evidence of their defeat.

“I just wanted to show some of the toll that war takes on those who fight it,” he says. “There’s a lot of bellicose posturing from politicians and from people on social media fueling this conflict, but at its core, war comes down to moments like this, when one side or the other finds itself at the mercy of their enemy.”

‘You Need to See What’s Going on Here’

Joshua Lott (photographer) was photographing a St. Paul, Minn. event that honored families who have lost loved ones to police violence. He heard about another young man being shot by cops in Brooklyn Center. Lott heard about it through John Garcia (the father of Kobe Dimock Heisler), who was 21 years old and died in an accidental police shooting. He received an alert to his cell phone. Lott reached Brooklyn Center where protesters were gathering and was informed by a witness that Daunte Wayne was the victim.

Lott wasn’t wearing any tactical gear so he went back to his car to reassess and better prepare for the situation. He stumbled upon a bunch of people wrapped around one another, huddled together. “I made a few frames and it was really difficult for me because I knew it wasn’t one of those stares that was kind of like you know, ’stop taking pictures of me, get out of here,” Lott says of Emajay Driver, a close friend of Wright and the person staring into the lens in the photograph.

“I think him staring at me just kind of [said], ‘you need to feel my pain. You need to see what’s going on here and that this is happening to me one too many times here in the Minneapolis area.’ I felt like he was struggling to understand what just happened to his best friend. It was very powerful. It really touched me.”

‘Happiness Needs to Be Photographed’

Photographer Scott McIntyre’s assignment for The New York TimesHe worked fast to provide live coverage for the Scripps Spelling Bee. The final word, Zaila Avantgarde, 14, was spelled correctly and she became the Scripps Spelling Bee champion. “Once the moment of the final word came, I knew that after seeing photographs from past contests, whoever wins will be showered with confetti,” McIntyre says.

He used a long lens to focus on Avantgarde and then waited for the judge’s confirmation. “It all happened so quickly,” he recalls. Zaila leapt in the air as the confetti began to fall over her. The excitement quickly became contagious.. “I made several photographs as she basked in victory, but I knew when she put her hands on her forehead, closed her eyes, and cheered in celebration, that her world was changing.”

McIntyre was grateful for the opportunity to capture something as straightforwardly joyful as Avant-garde’s victory. “Photojournalism can be a heartbreaking profession at times, especially the past couple of years. It’s a reminder that happiness needs to be photographed along with the hard truths of the world.”

‘Criminalization of Desperate Migration’

In September, a sudden spike in the arrival of migrants from Haiti—which had been hit by a devastating earthquake in August—caught the Biden Administration off guard at the Texas border. As they waited for asylum, thousands of migrants assembled at Del Rio’s makeshift camp. They crossed the Rio Grande to Mexico and bought food and water, while waiting to get to Mexico.

On Sept. 19, photographer Paul Ratje navigated border closures imposed by U.S. authorities to make it to Ciudad Acuña on the Mexican side of the border. As he was photographing the people who crossed the river, he noticed that a number of U.S. border agents were riding on horses on their side. “When I heard Border Patrol starting to shout at the migrants to leave the banks, I knew something tense was about to happen, ” Ratje says. Ratje adds that he noticed a young man wearing blue shorts running up the bank. “The border patrol agent chased after him, grabbing his shirt. The agent finally let go of the man after they spun in circles. I was relieved that he was released appearing uninjured, and then he just disappeared over the bank of the river, and was gone.”

Ratje’s image of this moment was published on national newswires. It also made it into newspapers across the country. This sparked fierce reaction from both sides, especially on the iconography that featured the leather reins, which many viewers thought were whips. “There are so many layers to this scene. For many it echoes our country’s dark history, while for others, it angers them that migrants are crossing our borders,” Ratje says. “ I learned that in our day and age, everything is subject to interpretation, despite how a given photographer may perceive their own image. To me, it simply shows the criminalization of desperate migration.”

‘Expressed Her Pain With Silence’

After 11 days of intense fighting that left more than 250 Palestinians and 12 Israelis dead, Israel and Palestinian militant Hamas reached an agreement to cease fire on May 20. Fatima Shbair, a photographer on assignment in Gaza went straight to Beit Hanoun where she was heavily bombed.

Shbair started talking to families affected by conflict and began walking through the houses of those who had been there to see the damage. Raghad Naseer, a teenage girl from Pakistan, was her first encounter. She and her family then entered Raghad’s home. Shbair was accompanied by Raghad, who was clutching her Teddy Bear. “I asked Raghad about her room and where she was sleeping, then she took me to it,” Shbair says. “She stood in her room in complete silence, contemplating what happened to the neighborhood through the destroyed wall of her room, as if she still could not comprehend what had happened.”

Raghad’s family has now permanently left the neighborhood, moving to a small house far away. “Taking this picture, it made me think: my home could have been like this at any moment, and I would have lived the same moment and feeling,” Shbair says. “Raghad expressed her pain with silence. I learned from her that sometimes through silence we are able to derive some strength to continue life.”

‘Show the Public Those Hard Truths’

During Los Angeles County’s COVID-19 surge in January, before vaccines were widely available, Black and Latino residents died at a rate two to three times higher than that of white residents. Meridith Kohut was a photojournalist who spent two weeks with medical staff. Meridith worked from 15-18 hours per day in order to record the stark economic and racial disparities for The New York. Times Magazine.

Felipe Cruz, an AC technician, was admitted to the hospital on Jan. 1, 2021— his 48th birthday. The hospital kept him there almost a month. “I met his family on Jan. 28 when doctors brought them into the ICU and explained that his organs were failing, and that there was nothing more they could do,” Kohut says. Shortly after, Cruz’s family made the difficult decision to remove his ventilator—and agreed to have the incredibly painful and intimate moment documented in order to show others how COVID-19 was devastating working-class Latino families in their community.

María, Cruz’s wife, and Maritza, his daughter, watched pressed against the glass door, shouting to him how much they loved him and encouraging him to be brave, Kohut says. “María wanted to be by his side, but doctors would not permit her inside his contaminated room, for her safety. Tears streamed down her face as she shouted “fly high, my love,” in Spanish as his heart rate monitor flattened.”

“I was reluctant to photograph such an intense moment of pain,” Kohut says. “I struggled to raise my camera, instead of putting it down and comforting her.”

Kohut says the task of photographing dying and grieving people during the COVID-19 pandemic has taken an emotional toll, often finding the back of her camera “soaked” by her own tears, she says. “But in a health crisis, it is the responsibility of photojournalists to report from the frontline, and show the public those hard truths,” she adds. “Documenting death is one of the most profound ways to get others to pay attention, take the crisis seriously, and take precautions to prevent themselves and others from getting sick, too.”

‘Understand What Your Limits Are’’

Konstantinos Tsakalidis was on the island Evia when wildfires erupted uncontrollably in Greece. He was in Gouves in northern Evia when he decided to take a photograph of residents’ reactions to seeing the flames approaching. “I saw from a distance a woman dressed in black moving awkwardly outside a house”—one of the closest buildings to the burning forest, Tsakalidis says.

That woman was 81-year-old Panayiota Kritsiopi–Nomidi. Tsakalidis heard Panayiota Kritsiopi-Nomidi shout towards him, calling her husband, and he approached her. Tsakalidis was welcomed into her garden by the woman. “She told me about all the hard work they had put into their home, which was now in danger of being lost to the fire, and the lack of government intervention to put out the fire,” he says. “As she was telling me this, the flames swallowed up the pine forest behind the house. That was the moment I took the picture”

Tsakalidis alerted Kritsiopi–Nomidi’s neighbors to her situation to make sure she and her husband could make it out safely. They did and the house they shared escaped also survived.

The greatest challenge in covering dangerous situations like wildfires is “ to understand what your limits are” in terms of safety, Tsakalidis says. “I was able to keep calm, trust my instincts and function professionally, managing to capture images that convey in the best way the situation of the residents of the island,” he says. “That can be a hard call in a stressful situation like this, especially as it is a story from my own country with people who could have easily been members of my own family.”

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