There are more people than ever on Earth, but never have we been this connected with each other. Photography plays a large role, with the still image continuing to hold extraordinary power, bypassing borders and languages and cultures, to inform and educate us. Its success is its impact, altering our actions or thoughts merely because it exists. It’s our proof. And technology has kept pace.
Each photograph selected for TIME’s Top 10 photos of 2014, unranked and carefully culled from thousands, takes us into a dramatic scene that provides an important visual record of history. As these images came through our news-gathering operation over the course of the year, they not only astounded us, but they also moved us.
The audience for photography has grown exponentially thanks to the Internet and smartphones, and the demand to see what just happened has never been higher. Pictures travel at a lightning speed across these platforms, reaching millions of people in just seconds. This was particularly evident in March when Ellen DeGeneres choreographed a star-studded selfie (#1) at the Academy Awards. The image exceeded 1 million retweets in the first hour; today, that number is at more than 3.36 million, making it the most retweeted picture in history. It’s a reminder that today’s audience is more engaged than ever before.
At TIME, we see proof of this every day. LightBox’s most talked-about post of the year was Jérôme Sessini’s haunting pictures of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17’s crash. On July 17, Sessini was among the first journalists on the scene when Russia-backed separatists allegedly downed the plane in eastern Ukraine. His pictures are seared in our minds: nearly impossible to look at, yet impossible to look away. The scene of a man still strapped to his seat, resting in a wind-blown wheat field, is a quiet memorial to the tragic loss of innocence. Its composition (#10) hearkens the poetry of an Andrew Wyeth painting. It was a feeling all too common in 2014.
Moises Saman was on assignment for TIME in August to photograph the dire plight of the Yazidis. Thousands of people from the religious minority were trapped atop northern Iraq’s Sinjar mountains by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria. They were vulnerable to the elements, specifically the heat, with little-to-no aid trickling in. Saman and a handful of journalists were able to secure a ride in a helicopter delivering aid. After picking up evacuees, the helicopter lifted off with around 39 people on board. It soon crashed, killing its pilot and injuring nearly everyone else, some very seriously. Amid the mayhem, Saman, also a victim, continued to shoot. He made an extraordinary set of pictures, including one frame (#8) that brought us inside a second rescue helicopter. You can almost feel the emotional weight. To have the wherewithal to keep documenting is a great tribute to Saman’s instinct, skill and determination.
We saw it in Gaza, too, during this summer’s war between Palestinian militants and the Israeli Defense Forces. Tyler Hicks’ image (#7) following a beach attack was astounding. Hicks had heard an explosion, looked out his window and saw a boy running. He had turned to grab his gear when he heard a second boom. He looked up and saw that same boy, and three others, dead. They were four cousins of fishermen and had been warned by relatives not to go outside. His image of one man carrying a victim, as another lies in front of him, face in the sand and legs splayed, became one of the conflict’s defining frames.
Daniel Berehulak’s unwavering work for the New York Times from Liberia, the hardest-hit nation in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, gave us a window into a devastating epidemic. For months, Berehulak carefully put on his protective gear and documented the events around him as the virus roared. His picture on this list (#3) is the terrifying depiction of two health workers in hazmat suits carrying a small boy into a clinic. Scenes like this kept Ebola in the spotlight, demanding we step up our global efforts to stop its spread. The humanity in Berehulak’s work, and his commitment, remain unmatched.
In Ferguson, Mo., Whitney Curtis captured an extraordinary exchange (#2) between a man with his hands up and law enforcement officers in tactical gear. In the wake of the August shooting death of black teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson, she immortalized the term “unarmed black man.” It was shared widely as the national conversation about race and the militarization of police ramped up, and remains to this day one of the most iconic pictures of the ongoing tension in the St. Louis suburb and other communities across the country.
Half a world away, Massimo Sestini made a similarly powerful picture. In June, he accompanied the Italian navy on missions to rescue migrants journeying across the treacherous Mediterranean. His overhead view of an overpacked vessel (#6) was an extraordinary composition that in one frame showed the desperation and risk that tens of thousands of people from the Middle East and Africa take to find a better life in Europe. For thousands of them, that search ended in death.
Changes in this industry have also favored adaptation, and Ross McDonnell is a testament to that fluidity. In January, as the demonstrations in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev were peaking in violence, the documentary filmmaker transitioned seamlessly between still and motion. Over the course of several days, he made rich, painterly, cinematic photographs and videos. His picture through the view of a bus window (#4) shows an almost biblical scene of fire and ice.
Ice is also the subject of the stunning picture of a hail storm in Novosibirsk, Russia, captured in mid-July by amateur photographer Nikita Dudnik. It’s an eerily beautiful shot (#9) of swimmers fleeing the water as the pellets fall and splash.
Today’s ubiquity of cameras might have played a role in the dissemination of Dudnik’s image, but we are often reminded that we can only bear witness where we have access, and Tomas van Houtryve knows this well. The photographer has labored on a project about the unseen impact of American drone strikes in faraway lands. He used shadows of people at locations in the U.S., similar to those targeted overseas, to bring war home. Recently, van Houtryve turned that focus inward. Directing a small quadcopter, he made scenes ranging from kids playing soccer at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the site of a mass shooting in 2012, to the calm rows of houseboats in California’s Central Valley (#5), where the shoreline shows the effects of a months-long drought. It’s from this perspective, the drone’s-eye view, that we see something we tend to ignore: how the rest of the world looks at us.
Over the last few months we have been pouring over thousands of photographs that provide a snapshot of the year in news, sports and culture. This is the first of many curated year-end galleries we will publish over the next few days and weeks, which TIME’s photo team edited with Phil Bicker, whose discerning and nuanced eye as a senior photo editor is responsible for assembling our Pictures of the Week galleries. There were so many runners up to this year’s Top 10 photos but these, we feel, are the most striking and lasting. We spoke to each of the photographers about the picture he or she made; their words provide the captions that accompany their photos in the gallery.
The entirety of our year-end collection will serve as a reminder of the grim, the surprising and the off-beat that defined 2014 – the moments that will continue to impact our lives after the clock strikes midnight on Dec. 31.
Kira Pollack is TIME’s Director of Photography. Follow her on Twitter @kirapollack.