TIME’s Top 100 Photos of 2021


Remember when people thought it was the year? That 2020 was uniquely cursed, the worst year ever, that all would be resolved by January. Instead, 2021 has proved to be a fraught annum of unfinished transitions, half-kept promises, all torque and in-betweens. The world got moving again, yes, but not for very long and seldom together. From the U.S. to India, COVID-19 killed more people this year than last. Parts of the globe were held back by lack of access to a vaccine. Other parts (the richer parts) held themselves back by failing to access a shared reality.

And yet, seeing is still believing.

People may quarrel endlessly about why certain things happened—the breach of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, for example—but that it, in fact, happened is as certain as the form of Officer Eugene Goodman in the corridor to the Senate chamber, right hand on his holstered pistol, left hand raised as he confronts the intruders, before leading them toward police.

The mottled, checkerboard of a year is one we can all witness in the 100 images TIME’s photo editors present here, unranked, as the best of 2021:

George Floyd’s family cheered a jury’s verdict.

The Taliban walked into Kabul, then knelt in prayer.

Olivia Rodrigo teetered into the West Wing.

National Guardsmen slept in the Capitol.

The lights of a ferry shone like ice on the water off an island in flames.

And at an L.A. hospital, a woman named María Salinas Cruz shouted, “Fly high, my love!” in Spanish. She was loud enough to be heard through the glass door of the room where her husband, Felipe, who had contracted COVID-19 during the 2020 winter surge before vaccines became available, was being disconnected from a ventilator. An AC technician, he couldn’t work from home.

If the reality we all still share is the one captured in pixels, that consensus is precious, and worth guarding while we figure out how to talk to one another again. Organizations from Twitter to the BBC are joining initiatives to make transparent the provenance of the images and footage they publish.

Because what would we believe if we couldn’t believe our own eyes? What we want to believe, of course. And look where that’s got us. — Karl Vick

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