TIME Man on the Wire

TIME Picks the Best Viral Photos of 2011

Spontaneous snapshots. Intimate moments. Unexpected exposures. There was no one formula for this year’s most viral photographs.

Spontaneous snapshots. Intimate moments. Unexpected exposures. There was no one formula for this year’s most viral photographs. Most were based on news events, such as the death of longtime Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi—but these photos ended up becoming the news themselves. They shocked us. They awed us. They inspired us to feel. But the most powerful feeling was the impulse to share.

The best viral images of 2011 are those we found flooding our email inboxes and Twitter feeds this year. One thing weaves the images together: each photographer netted a once-in-a-lifetime picture. From Royal Wedding mania and a bloodied despot to an utterly unexpected leopard on the loose, photographers both professional and amateur brought us the scenes of unpredictability and chaos that gripped our world over the past 12 months. As shocking as the subject matter is the simplicity of some images. A few came from mobile phones. Most were snapped without a thought of—or time to handle—composition or lighting. One was even taken by a man who would be dead minutes later.

Given that the Internet is a notoriously fickle beast, it’s impossible to predict which photos will score a hit. Here, LightBox looks back on the photos we couldn’t help but share. —Nick Carbone

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