TIME Picks the Top 10 Photos of 2014

7 minute read

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.

Read next: TIME Picks the Top 10 Photos of 2013

Image posted by Oscars show host Degeneres on her Twitter account shows movie stars posing for a picture taken by Cooper at 86th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
Ellen DeGeneres. Hollywood, California. March 2, 2014: "It started out as a joke on Meryl Streep – because I adore her and she has a great sense of humor," says Ellen DeGeneres. "The plan was: I was gonna go to Meryl in the audience and say, 'Let’s take a selfie.' And try to set a record for the most retweets. I knew she’d be up for that and I knew that there were some people sitting in that area who would join in if I asked (by the way, no one knew I was doing this. It was a surprise to everyone.) "I was gonna ask these other celebrities to jump in. The plan and hope was there would be too many and I would ask Meryl to step out and take the picture. If you watch it again you can hear me trying to ask Meryl to get out. But Bradley Cooper insisted he could take it, which he did. Brilliantly. "The plan worked – sort of. There were more celebrities than I even imagined. Jared Leto ran from the other side of the room to be in it. Brad and Angelina came in from another section. Liza Minelli is somewhere in the back. You can’t see her, but she’s back there. And then of course there’s Lupita Nyongo’s brother – he’s front and center. "It was this incredible moment of spontaneity that I will never forget. And thanks to the selfie neither will anyone else."Ellen DeGeneres—Reuters
A man backs away as law enforcement officials close in on him and eventually detain him during protests over the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager killed by a police officer, in Ferguson, Mo.
Whitney Curtis. Ferguson, Mo. Aug. 11, 2014: "I was not surprised by the reaction following the fatal shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson," says photographer Whitney Curtis. "The racial tension in the St. Louis area was something I noticed when moving to the city. It was an issue bubbling just under the surface. "Aug. 11 was my second day covering protests in the suburb. That night I was working at the site of Brown’s makeshift memorial when I heard the sound of tear gas canisters being fired in the distance. As gas started to fill the air, I rushed several blocks to the main road where 23-year-old Rashaad Davis stood with a small group on the sidewalk with their hands in the air. "I turned and walked away from the group to photograph the police presence, which had increased dramatically from the night before. Some officers were in tactical gear holding their weapons, and several armored personnel carriers were parked behind them. Suddenly I felt my knee buckle under me and it took me a moment to realize the police had shot me with a rubber bullet or beanbag round. I quickly ran to a parking lot to take cover behind cars and at that moment I saw a group of officers round the corner and approach Davis as he slowly backed away with his arms in the air. They tackled him to the ground and he was arrested that night."Whitney Curtis for The New York Times/Redux
Medical staff carry James Dorbor, 8, suspected of having Ebola, into a treatment facility in Monrovia, Liberia.
Daniel Berehulak. Monrovia, Liberia. Sept. 5, 2014: "I had been covering the Ebola epidemic for more than two weeks," says freelance photographer Daniel Berehulak. "My day started following an ambulance team [bringing patients to an] Ebola Treatment Unit. [There] I noticed James Dorbor, 8, struggling as he lay in the dirt. Wearing surgical gloves, the boy’s father, Edward, tried to get him to drink, raising coconut water and then bottles to the boy’s lips; he refused. I grabbed more water and threw it to Edward. I kept reminding myself that everyone around me potentially had Ebola, and made sure I didn’t get too close. Over three hours I watched James’ health deteriorate. Sitting upright at first, he later became too weak. Lying down underneath a shelter, he began to convulse before my eyes. After a minute, he lay lifeless, his father reacting to the loss of his son. The crowd, which had been supportive and humming with suggestions of how to help, hushed. There were murmurs: 'The boy has passed.' James fought a while longer, his body and eyes moving as his father tried to get him to drink. It was then that the door to the ETU opened."Edward ran to try to explain James’ critical condition. It took 20 minutes for health workers in protective suits to arrive, spraying the area around the boy. As they deliberated over how best to move James, his father and onlookers frantically yelled at the workers to carry the boy into the ETU. After he was taken to be treated, I waited to speak to Edward to offer my condolences. Days later I learnt that James died soon after being carried inside the ETU. I think about that day a lot. I think about James convulsing and nobody being able to do anything, and then seeing a father experience his son’s death, albeit prematurely. What if they had brought James in sooner? Those memories haunt me to this day."Daniel Berehulak—The New York Times/Redux
Ukraine Protests
Ross McDonnell. Kiev, Ukraine. Jan. 25, 2014: "The banging of sticks on metal is the only noise I can remember from that Saturday on Hrushevskoho Street," says photographer and filmmaker Ross McDonnell. "It provided a dull, metronomic backing-track to my afternoon as I photographed in and around a barricade of charred vehicles in central Kiev. It was only then, in the daylight, that the results of the previous nights rioting, a scene of seething anger and towering, explosive flames, were visible. Temperatures had dipped below -20ºC and the winter light, diffused by heavy smoke and the spray of fire hoses created an alien but ethereal scene that will linger long in the memory."The rioting continued. Young, brave protesters ventured beyond the line of torched buses to launch molotov cocktails, their wooden shields and pastel ponchos making them seem so vulnerable against the backdrop of metallic shields and the armed riot police that stood behind them. Other protesters, with blackened faces and tired eyes, continued working, ferrying tires to the barricades and shoring up their defenses. Keeping busy meant keeping warm."This is an image I'm sure 'we all' have; those that were there that day, capturing the moment. I took a couple of images from this position and then found this frame within a frame that the bus window provided, the icicles and the distant police...and Kiev."Ross McDonnell
Blue Sky Days
Tomas van Houtryve. Lake Oroville, California. Nov. 25, 2014: ”I took this photo with my camera attached to an aerial drone as part of my ‘Blue Sky Days’ personal art project,” says VII photographer Tomas van Houtryve. “During the past year I've traveled from coast to coast building a portrait of our country as seen from the sky. In addition to the unique point-of-view offered by this new technology, my project allows me to push back against what I consider to be a troubling trend: cameras are increasingly weaponized – used for surveillance, targeting and killing – rather than their traditional role as tools for portraiture, fine art and journalism. The rapid rise of drone technology means our sky will soon be buzzing with many more cameras. “Do we want these robotic machines only to be scanning our faces and license plates for suspicious patterns, or we do want them documenting beauty, historic moments, and a hint of poetry as so many human photographers have since the invention of the camera? “In this photograph, house boats are seen on Lake Oroville which is 70% empty due to California's severe drought. Much of the food eaten across the U.S. comes from California, and agriculture has been severely impacted by the scant snowpack and low rainfall of the past three years.”Tomas van Houtryve—VII
Italian navy rescue asylum seekers
Massimo Sestini. Mediterranean Sea. June 7, 2014: "I spent 12 days on board of the FREMM Bergamini, a modern Italian Navy ship [commissioned] to rescue human lives of thousands of migrants between Africa and Malta,” says Italian photographer Massimo Sestini. “I really wanted to report on the lives of these admirable Navy men, who have devoted their time to saving these desperate migrants. “One day, on a patrol aboard a helicopter, we arrived above one of the migrants’ boat. There were hundreds of people (500 if not more) waving their arms, looking at us and calling us! [You could see] their desperation and, concurrently, their happiness at being saved. It’s not something that happens every day.”Massimo Sestini—Polaris
A man carries a child as another lies dead after two explosions on a beach in Gaza.
Tyler Hicks. Gaza. July 16, 2014: “With civilian casualties mounting in Gaza, I had just returned to my hotel from photographing the destruction from overnight bombings,” says Tyler Hicks, a photographer with the New York Times. “I heard a close explosion and rushed to the window to see a small shack atop a sea wall had been struck by an Israeli bomb and was burning. Young boys emerged from the smoke, running toward the adjacent beach. “I collected my cameras and was putting on my body armor and a helmet when, about 30 seconds after the first blast, there was another. The boys were now dead and lying motionless in the sand. “When I reached the beachside I paused; it was too risky to go onto the exposed sand. From the viewpoint of a drone, wearing body armor and a helmet and carrying cameras that could be mistaken for weapons might make me a target as well. I watched as a group of men ran to the children’s aid. I joined them, running with the feeling that I would find safety in numbers, though I understood that feeling could be deceptive: Crowds can make things worse. We arrived at the scene to find lifeless, mangled bodies. The boys were beyond help. They had been killed instantly, and the people who had rushed to them were shocked and distraught. “Children, maybe four feet tall, dressed in summer clothes, running from an explosion, don’t fit the description of Hamas fighters.”Tyler Hicks—The New York Times/Redux
Sinjar Mountains, Iraq. August 12, 2014.Survivors of the crash, including yazidi refugees and Kurdish and Iraqi Army personnel, onboard a rescue helicopter that transported them from the crash site back to Kurdish-controlled Dohuk Province. An Iraqi Air Force helicopter on a resue misssion in the Sinjar Mountains crashed shortly after takeoff. Onboard the helicopter were dozens of Yazidi refugees stranded in the mountain for days unable to reach the safety of Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Iraq.(Photo by Moises Saman/MAGNUM)
Moises Saman. Sinjar Mountains, Iraq. Aug. 12, 2014: “I took this photograph aboard a rescue helicopter a few hours after surviving a crash on another helicopter in Mount Sinjar, where thousands of Yazidi civilians had fled the Islamic State,” says Magnum photographer Moises Saman. “I had flown to Mount Sinjar earlier that afternoon on an Iraqi Airforce helicopter sent to deliver supplies to the besieged population there. We landed on the mountain and before us unfolded a most dramatic scene – sickly men, women and children, fatigued by hunger and thirst, lay everywhere. Many of them scrambled to push their way onto our helicopter, in the hopes that they would be carried to safety in Iraqi Kurdistan. The crew loaded as many people onto the helicopter as they could, prioritizing women, children and the elderly, and prepared for take-off. “I don't remember exactly how we went down. But minutes after our chaotic take-off, I lay stunned in darkness, pinned down by the pandemonium of many bodies on top of me. We all crawled out of the aircraft, some more injured than others. We soon realized that one of the pilots had lost his life. A few children, who had already endured unthinkable tragedy - fleeing their homes and facing starvation in the mountains - lay unconscious next to their hysterical mothers. Hours later, another helicopter finally reached us and picked up the injured. This photograph is of that second precarious life-saving trip. In the photo, injured crewmembers and Yazidis lie atop the body of the dead pilot, which was covered by a blanket. In the back, a crewmember helps his injured colleague find a spot to rest amid the mayhem. In the left of the frame, an injured volunteer rests his head in his hands, still in shock after surviving the crash.”Moises Saman—Magnum for TIME
APTOPIX Russia Hailstorm Deaths
Nikita Dudnik, Novosibirsk, Russia. July 12, 2014: “It was a very hot day, which is unusual for a summer in Siberia, so my girlfriend and I decided to go to a city beach,” says Nikita Dudnik, a 20-year-old businessman and the owner of a small hunting company. “When we got there the weather took a turn for the worse, and when we reached the water, a very strong wind began. ”I think my sixth sense switched on and I turned on my mobile phone camera to shoot the trees, which had started to sway. I really didn’t expect what happened next: it started hailing. At first, I couldn’t understand what was happening and I hid under a metal shade. When I regained my senses […] I felt I probably shouldn’t switch off my camera. ”I felt uneasy while shooting. When the wind changed direction and hail bombarded us, I stopped filming for a time and instead took pictures as we rushed back to our car. [Many] people who were hurt by hail.I was very surprised that this story reached all corners of the world so quickly. My video was seen by nearly 11 million people in the first week. For the first time, I realized how fast news of an event can spread across the world.”Nikita Dudnik—AP
Crash Malaysian airways uvraine
Jerome Sessini. Torez, Ukraine. July 17, 2014: “We were in Donetsk when we got word that a military plane had come down,” says Magnum photographer Jerome Sessini. “As we made our way there, we heard it was, in fact, a passenger plane. When we arrived, I could see the burning wreckage along the small roads. And the scene [revealed] itself to me: There were bodies strewn everywhere, and bits of plane scattered – it was a horrific scene. “There were separatists guarding the place. I saw one woman in part of the wreckage and she looked like she was just asleep. Her body was intact. At one point, near some fields, I noticed this purple color on the edge of my sight and we walked in and found this body. He was still strapped into his seat and the scene looked totally unreal. It was pretty scary, actually. I only took a few frames. I didn’t want to go any closer. What you see here is as close as I got. “One security guard asked me to hand over my memory card. I had to – and I think this photo was on it. But when he was leaving, I stood in the middle of the road and blocked the car as they left. He gave the card back to me, and even apologized for taking it. I was there with two other photographers and on the way back in the car we didn’t talk. It was such a hard scene to process. It was hard to take it in. Nothing can prepare you for a scene like that. It is one of the most violent I have seen.”Jerome Sessini—Magnum

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