TIME Picks the Most Surprising Photos of 2012

3 minute read

Clint Eastwood’s appearance and speech to an empty chair at the GOP convention stupefied us, Felix Baumgartner’s jump from 24 miles above the Earth astounded us and Gabby Douglas’ Olympic performance thrilled us. But now that it’s on the wane, we can step back and report that, all in all, 2012 held relatively few major surprises. Perhaps one reason for the year’s ho-hum factor is that several long-anticipated events — the Mars Curiosity rover landing; the London Olympics; the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee; the U.S. elections — set a tone of predictability for a year that, in large part, failed to ignite.

Granted, there were some genuine scandals, which always raise eyebrows (if not the level of national discourse): the Petraeus affair, Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace and pictures of a naked royal prince gallivanting with friends — in Vegas, of all places.

In front of the ubiquitous TV cameras, Angelina Jolie courted publicity at the Oscars, while Rihanna and Chris Brown shamelessly courted controversy everywhere. That it was all so baldly contrived hardly stopped the media from buying right into it.

A calculated, cautious and utterly uninspiring American presidential campaign contrasted with the hope and optimism of four years ago. The promise of the Arab Spring gave way to protests against the new government in Egypt, a deadly attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi and a bloody civil war in Syria that shows no signs of a resolution.

The surprises, when they did come, were brutal shocks rather than thrilling or uplifting wonders. The shooting death of Trayvon Martin and the movie theater rampage in Aurora, Colo., left us three parts numb and one part seething with a kind of violent despair.

We marked solemn anniversaries, like the 100th year since the sinking of the Titanic and the 50th since the death of Marilyn. Mick, Keith and the rest of the Stones kept rolling to mark their own 50th anniversary, but they did so with an utterly foreseeable bombast.

It was left to a Korean YouTube sensation riding an invisible horse to truly surprise and entertain us this year. But even then the novelty and fun rapidly wore thin, as Psy tributes from the likes of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, Eaton school boys and countless others lay siege to the Internet.

And yet … in the face of what can really only be called a rather disappointing year, TIME presents a gallery of images from the past twelve months that did, despite everything, manage to surprise us: pictures that, we hope and trust, will in some small way redress the flaws of a year that, despite spectacles as wondrous as a man falling to earth from space and a Hollywood icon chatting with a chair, ultimately fell a little flat.

March 20, 2012. Suspended by wires, Chinese artist Li Wei performs in the sky at La Villette in Paris.Francois Mori—AP
A young girl pokes a homeless man sleeping under an orange tree near Syntagma Square in central Athens.Georgios Makkas—Panos Pictures
June 21, 2012. A Panama border police officer dressed as a clown rests on a cot before entertaining residents of the Darien province, on the border with Colombia, Panama.Arnulfo Franco—AP
Aug. 13, 2012. A light shines behind President Barack Obama as he speaks during a campaign event at Bayliss Park in Council Bluffs, Iowa, during a three day campaign bus tour through Iowa.Carolyn Kaster—AP
Nov. 26, 2012. Police officers are sprayed with milk by European milk farmers during a demonstration outside the European Parliament in Brussels.Geert Vanden Wikngaert—AP
Jan. 11, 2012. Statues of Elephants are covered at the Ambedkar Park in Noida, located on the outskirts of New Delhi, India.Anindito Mukherjee—EPA
July 6, 2012. Women, wearing nylon masks, rest on the shore during their visit to a beach in Qingdao, Shandong province, China.Aly Song—Reuters
Feb. 9, 2012. Chandra Bahadur Dangi, a 72-year-old Nepali who claims to be the world's shortest man at 22 inches in height, stands near his home in Reemkholi village, Dang district, some 540 kilometres southwest of Kathamandu.Prakash Mathema—AFP/Getty Images
Jan. 7, 2012. A leopard attacks and wounds Pintu Deyan, an Indian labourer in a residential neighbourhood of Silphukhuri area in Guwahati. Three people were seriously injured in the leopard attack before the feline was tranquilized and taken to Assam state zoo.STR/AFP/Getty Images
April 13, 2012. Men use ropes to try and right a supply truck overloaded with wheat straw, used as animal feed, along a road in Dargai, Pakistan.Mian Kursheed—Reuters
Jan. 25, 2012. Lilly Earp, 8, changes the diaper of her five-week-old sister Emily in their apartment at Hope Gardens Family Center, a shelter for homeless women and children, on the outskirts of Los Angeles, California.Lucy Nicholson—Reuters
Feb. 1, 2012. Members of the Iranian army's air force re-enact the scene of founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's arrival in Iran in 1979 at Merhrabad airport, in Tehran.Ruhollah Yazdani—Mehr News Agency/Reuters
Feb. 3, 2012. Women try to pick up flour spilled onto snow at the Charahi Qambar refugee camp in Kabul, Afghanistan.Andrea Bruce—The New York Times/Redux
Feb. 7, 2012. Maria Jose Cristerna, 36, a mother of four, tattoo artist and former lawyer, applies make-up to her face at her home in Guadalajara, Mexico.Alejandro Acosta—Reuters
Feb. 13, 2012. Ninjutsu practitioners participate in a sword drill as members of various Ninjutsu schools showcase their skills to the media at a park in Karaj, Iran.Caren Firouz—Reuters
Feb. 23, 2012. A physically disabled woman on her wheelchair clashes with riot police in the centre of La Paz, Bolivia.David Mercado—Reuters
Feb. 27, 2012. New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez is shown in the mirror as he poses for a portrait on photo day during baseball spring training, in Tampa, Fla.Matt Slocum—AP
Feb. 28, 2012. A changing billboard with an election poster depicting Russian billionaire and presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov, left, and with an advertising poster depicting American actor Bruce Willis seen in the moment of changing screens in St. Petersburg, Russia.Dmitry Lovetsky—AP
Feb. 29, 2012. A hotel receptionist tries to put out a fire during a demonstration on Barcelona, Spain. Student associations have called upon 120,000 students to strike in protest against education cuts recently announced by the Catalan government.David Ramos—Getty Images
March 2, 2012. Ultra-orthodox Jewish children finish a snowman in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighborhood.Bernat Armangue—AP
March 28, 2012. Pope Benedict XVI with Cuban leader Fidel Castro during a meeting in Havana.HO/AFP/Getty Images
April 8, 2012. Pablo Leal Requejo plays the role of an angel during the 'Bajada del Angel' Eastern Holy Week celebration in Penafiel, Spain.Daniel Ochoa de Olza—AP
July 26, 2012. North Korean top leader leader Kim Jong Un, accompanied by his wife Ri Sol Ju, visit the Rungna People's Pleasure Ground in Pyongyang.KCNA/Xinhua/Landov
Aug. 12, 2012. A rebel fighter with the Lions of Tawhid jumps into a pool at the unit's base in Tal Rifaat, Syria.Bryan Denton—The New York Times via Redux
Sept. 26, 2012. Villagers look at a wounded endangered one horned Rhinoceros that was shot and dehorned by poachers in the jungle of Parku hills near Kaziranga National Park, about 250 kilometers east of Guwahati.Biju Boro—AFP/Getty Images
June 10, 2012. Bride Nurasatilah Masae (L) stands in front of her bridegroom who was shot dead during their wedding in the Muslim majority province of Pattani, southern Thailand.EPA
June 15, 2012. Palestinian children stand next to the body of a horse after it was slaughtered for meat in a poor neighborhood in the central Gaza Strip. Horses are slaughtered every twenty days and then the meat is distributed amongst neighborhood residents.Ali Ali—EPA
Oct. 12, 2012. Spectators gather to watch the space shuttle Endeavour make its way down Manchester Blvd. in Los Angeles.Chris Carlson—AP
Oct. 4, 2012. Chloe Mills, 1-year-old daughter of Army Staff Sgt. Travis Mills and his wife Kelsey, crawls past her father's walking legs in his boyhood home in Vassar, Mich.Carlos Osorio—AP
Oct. 6, 2012. A giant inflatable doll representing President Hugo Chavez stands on top of a building in Caracas, Venezuela.Ramon Espinosa—AP
Oct. 9, 2012. Carlos Daniel Gonzalez (C), 6, shows authorities the way unknown gunmen attacked his parents and other relatives in the municipality of Villa Canales, 22 kilometers from Guatemala City, Guatemala. Carlos Daniel hid and survived the attack that killed seven members of his family, including two minors.Saul Martinez—EPA
June 20, 2012. Vacationers bask in front of the wreckage of capsized cruise liner Costa Concordia near the harbour of Giglio Porto, Italy.Max Rossi—Reuters
Oct. 19, 2012. A devotee of Ban Tha Rua Chinese shrine with a gun pierced through his cheek takes a part in a procession celebrating the annual vegetarian festival in Phuket, Thailand.Damir Sagolj—Reuters
June 24, 2012. Three Israeli female soldiers enjoy the sun on the beach in Tel Aviv, Israel.Oded Balilty—AP
Sept. 2, 2012. A Chinese parent (R) carrying a school desk as a child (L) carries a stool for the first day of school in a village in Macheng, central China's Hubei province, where more than 3000 other students have to bring their own desks to school.STR/AFP/Getty Images
June 6, 2012. A music group performs on a path amid fields to greet the farmers at Hwanggumpyong Island, near the North Korean town of Sinuiju and the Chinese border city of Dandong, North Korea.Jacky Chen—Reuters
June 22, 2012. A police officer throws a chair onto a pile of burning papers and office supplies after looting a building housing the legal department for disciplinary action against members of the police in La Pa, Bolivia.David Mercado—Reuters
June 20, 2012. An addict is forced to wear a helmet to prevent him from hitting the wall with his head at a police-run rehab center for drug addicts in Fuzhou, in southeast China's Fujian province. The center currently holds over 300 addicts.Liu Tao—EPA
June 28, 2012. Israeli Arab boys fight during Israel's National Youth Boxing Championship at the Arab village of Kfar Yasif, northern Israel.Oded Balilty—AP
Oct. 14, 2012. Pilot Felix Baumgartner of Austria jumps out of the capsule during the final manned flight for Red Bull Stratos in space. Austrian Felix Baumgartner broke the world record for the highest free fall in history after making a 23-mile ascent in capsule attached to a massive balloon.Red Bull Stratos via Getty Images
This Thursday, April 26, 2012 photo provided by the CU Independent shows a bear that wandered into the University of Colorado Boulder, Colo., dorm complex Williams Village falling from a tree after being tranquilized by Colorado wildlife officials. Colorado University police spokesman Ryan Huff said the bear was likely 1-3 years old and weighed somewhere between 150-200 pounds. Andy Duann—CU Independent/AP
July 11, 2012. Hole No 17 at the Royal Lytham & St. Annes golf club for Open Golf Preview, Lytham St Annes, England.Jon Super—AP
June 6, 2012. The Nave of York Minster is covered in 1500 square metres of real grass in preparation for the York Minster Rose Dinner, which will host over 900 guests to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee and raise money for the York Minster Fund.PA Photos/Landov
June 22, 2012. Afghans hide from militants outside of the Spozhmai Hotel on Lake Qurgha where security officials say Taliban insurgents killed nearly two dozen people, most of them civilians, in an attack just north of Kabul, Afghanistan.Musadeq Sadeq—AP
March 21, 2012. Workers prepare to launch a 45-foot paper airplane from the Pima Air and Space Museum over the desert in Eloy, Arizona.Joshua Lott—Reuters
June 15, 2012. Nik Wallenda crosses Niagra Falls on a tightrope from Goat Island, New York, to Niagra Falls, Ontario as seen from atop the Skylon Tower.Rick Madonik—The Toronto Star/Zuma Press
May 20, 2012. A damaged old tower is seen after an earthquake in Finale, northern Italy.Giorgio Benvenuti—Reuters
May 30, 2012. A man sleeps in a park in Crevalcore. Dozens of aftershocks hit northeastern Italy overnight as thousands of jittery survivors spent the night in tent camps after the region's second killer quake in days.Olivier Morin—AFP/Getty Images
July 13, 2012. Firefighting planes fetch water from the Beniares reservoir to fight a wildfire next to the Sierra Mariola Nature Park in Cocentaina near Alicante, Spain.Heino Kalis—Reuters
Nov. 27, 2012. Aviculturists from the Audubon Species Survival Center in New Orleans, wearing crane costumes, seek to round up four endangered Mississippi sandhill cranes and transport them from their current habitat to the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge in Gautier, Miss.Gerald Herbert—AP
Aug. 19, 2012. North Korean soldiers and residents run to greet North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (not pictured) as he arrives to visit a military unit on an island in the most southwest of Pyongyang.KCNA/Reuters
April 24, 2012. North Korea's new commander in chief, Kim Jong Un, is displayed on a giant screen during a concert on the eve of the 80th anniversary of the founding of the North Korean army in Pyongyang, North Korea.Ng Han Guan—AP
July 16, 2012. The entrance to a cave, shaped in the form of an aeroplane, can be seen under a mountain that was once the headquarters of former Chinese Communist military leader Lin Biao located on the outskirts of Beijing, China.David Gray—Reuters
May 10, 2012. A student takes a picture of a realistic sculpture of the late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden by artists Alberto Lorente, Manolo Castro and Julio Lorente titled "He" that is on display at the Superior Institute of Arts during the 11th Havana Biennial contemporary art exhibition in Havana, Cuba.Javier Galeano—AP
Oct. 8, 2012. A woman sunbathes on the beach amid vehicle tracks in Cannes, southeastern France.Lionel Cironneau—AP
March 13, 2012. A truck passes a dummy policeman, which are widely installed and equipped with fake radar guns in an attempt to curb speeding vehicles, in the town of Krugloye, Belarus.Vasily Fedosenko—Reuters
A polar bear cub and its mother swim through the Arctic Ocean in Svalbard, Norway. A polar bear cub hitches a ride from his mother during an Arctic swim. The cute cub clambered on to his mother's back as she swam in the icy waters surrounding the Svalbard Islands.Kevin Schafer—Barcroft Media/Landov
March 28, 2012. Afghan security forces escort Taliban militants clad in Afghan women dresses to be presented to the media at the Afghan intelligence department in Mehterlam, Laghman province, east of Kabul, Afghanistan.Rahmat Gul—AP
Aug. 4, 2012. An Indian photographer lifts a fake tiger used as a prop at the Table Top tourist destination at Saputara, some 400 km from Ahmedabad.Sam Panthaky—AFP/Getty Images
Sept. 22, 2012. China's first aircraft carrier, which was renovated from an old aircraft carrier that China bought from Ukraine in 1998, is seen docked at Dalian Port, in Dalian, Liaoning province, China.Stringer/Reuters
April 12, 2012. Children dressed as Hindu goddesses wait to participate in a parade during the Gajan festival in Calcutta, India. This festival, which celebrates the marriage of the sun and the earth, runs for a month and ends with the beginning of the Bengali New Year.Piyal Adhikary—EPA
Sept. 13, 2012. North Korean children lift toy barbells during play time at a school for the performing arts in Pyongyang, North Korea.David Guttenfelder—AP
Aug. 20, 2012. Party balloons sit on the floor of the Cross Hall of the White House in Washington in preparations for the Kids' "State Dinner," hosted by first lady Michelle Obama.Pablo Martinez Monsivais—AP
July 10, 2012. Young male gymnasts (bottom) stretch their legs as a female gymnast jumps on a stage at a local juvenile sports school in Jiaxing, Zhejiang province, China.Stringer/Reuters
Sept. 22, 2012. Jazmin Lopez and Miguel Osorio dance during the First Regional Dance Competition on Wheelchair Sports in Cancun.Victor Ruiz Garcia—Reuters
May 15, 2012. Paralympic swimmer Xavi Torres, 37, of Spain stretches before a training session on the Balearic island of Palma de Mallorca, Spain.Enrique Calvo—Reuters
May 9, 2012. Yawalapiti children play over the Xingu River in the Xingu National Park, Mato Grosso State, Brazil.Ueslei Marcelino—Reuters
May 6, 2012. A woman is suspended in the air from hooks attached to body piercings put on her back, during the annual 'Virada Cultural' event, in Sao Paulo, BrazilNelson Almeida—AFP/Getty Images
May 14, 2012. Students of the Superior Art Institute perform "Jesus Against The Universe" by the Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch as part of the 11th Havana Biennial contemporary art exhibition in Havana, Cuba.Javier Galeano—AP
June 12, 2012. Fraymaris Arias, widow of Cuban boxer Teofilo Stevenson, gestures in front of the coffin containing the body of her late husband during his wake in Havana, Cuba.Franklin Reyes—AP
Sept. 20, 2012. An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman swings a chicken over her family during the Kaparot ceremony in Bnei Brak, Israel. The Jewish ritual is supposed to transfer the sins of the past year to the chicken, and is performed before the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur.Uriel Sinai—Getty Images
March 13, 2012. Baseball players belonging to the Saraperos de Saltillo team and spectators take cover during an intense shootout that broke out during a game in the parking lot of the stadium in the city of Saltillo, northern Mexico.AP
March 5, 2012. A fielder in the Maasai Warriors cricket team catches the ball during pratice at a cricket grounds in Mombasa, South East Kenya.Carl de Souza—AFP/Getty Images
June 27, 2012. A riot police picks up bullets which he accidentally dropped while trying to arrest anti-eviction activists in Oviedo, northern Spain.Eloy Alonso—Reuters
March 3, 2012. Camilla the rubber chicken is seen at 124,800 feet above California. During February's solar storm a group of students called "Earth to Sky" from Bishop, California, launched a helium balloon which lifted the chicken into space to study solar radiation.Bishop Union High School/Earth to Sky/NASA/Reuters
Aug. 16, 2012. Juli Kisan plays with Buddu, a one and a half-year-old sloth bear at the family's home in Lakhapada, 220 miles from Bhubaneswar, India.Biswaranjan Rout—AP
Sept. 6, 2012. President of Russia Vladimir Putin seen aboard a motorized hang glider as he is going to lead Siberian white cranes on a migration route over an Arctic wilderness toward their winter habitat.ITAR-TASS/Landov
April 28, 2012. Physicist Daniel Schildhammer wears the Aouda.X, a spacesuit simulator for manned missions to Mars that is being developed under the Mars Analog Research Program PolAres, during a field test inside the Eisriesenhoehle at Dachstein mountain near the village of Obertraun, Austria.Lisi Niesner—Reuters
June 28, 2012. Israeli Holocaust beauty pageant contestant Estee Lieber, 74, looks on ahead of the beauty pageant in Haifa, Israel. During the pageant, the twenty women competing, between 74 to 90 years of age, shared Holocaust stories with the audience.Uriel Sinai—Getty Images
Feb. 20, 2012. Models carry umbrellas through plastic "rain" during the finale of the Burberry Prorsum London 2012 Autumn/Winter collection catwalk show at London Fashion Week.Leon Neal—AFP/Getty Images
Aug. 14, 2012. Gambling machines are destroyed at the Renjiagou village of Shunqing District in Nanchong City, in southwest China's Sichuan Province. Local policemen destroyed some 1000 confiscated gambling machines.Xinhua/Landov
June 10, 2012. A group of actors perform a woman being tortured during a protest against the premiere of a documentary about the late Gen. Augusto Pinochet in Santiago, Chile.Luis Hidalgo—AP
July 16, 2012. Egyptian troops demonstrate their skills at a graduation ceremony attended by President Mohammed Morsi, unseen, in Cairo, Egypt.Sherif Abd Monam—APA Images/ZUMAPRESS.com
July 11, 2012. A man cycles past produce thrown by vegetable cart vendors to block roads leading to the old souk and Nigmeh Square in Sidon, Lebanon.Ali Hashisho—Reuters
June 2, 2012. A runner is 'attacked' by a number of 'zombies' as she takes part in the 5K Zombies Race in Madrid, Spain.Victor Lerena—EPA
May 30, 2012. Afghan security officials inspect the site of a roadside bomb blast targeting the vehicle of district's executive senior officer Qambarkhel, in between Dawootkhel and Kotwal areas of Haska Mena district of Jalalabad, Afghanistan.Abdul Mueed—EPA
April 10, 2012. An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish girl prays at the Tel Aviv port during the Jewish Passover holiday.Oded Balilty—AP
Jan. 5, 2012. A student sits amid painted trees and bushes painted on the first day of the new semester at Rangsit University in Bangkok, Thailand.Sukree Sukplang—Reuters
May 23, 2012. Members of America's only all-female chain gang work in 104 degree Farenheit heat at Bartlett Lake, Arizona.Jim Lo Scalzo—EPA
Aug. 22, 2012. American tourist Ella uses an iPad while riding a Wi-Fi-outfitted donkey lead by her brother Aaron, in Kfar Kedem, a biblical reenactment park in the village of Hoshaya in the Galilee, northern Israel. Visitors riding donkeys through the Old Testament landscape can now also surf the web while being transported across the land of the Bible.Ariel Schalit—AP
April 25, 2012. A man attempts to retrieve a dog after it escaped from its cage during transportation on an airline at LaGuardia Airport on in New York City. The dog was caught after approximately ten minutes but not before halting plane traffic at the busy metro airport while the chase was underway.Spencer Platt—Getty Images
Sept. 14, 2012. A Hardees and a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants are seen on fire after protesters destroyed and set fire to them in Tripoli, northern Lebanon.Stringer/Reuters
March 3, 2012. Justin Pace helps clean up the home of Gene and Tammy Humphrey in Harrison, Tenn. after a violent wave of Midwest and Southern storms flattened some rural communities and left behind a trail of destruction.Billy Weeks—AP
June 27, 2012. Queen Elizabeth rides a cable car at an exhibit as she visits the Titanic Museum in Belfast, Northern Ireland.Marie Therese Hurson—Reuters
July 21, 2012. A visitor poses with a "3D painting" at the Magic Art Special exhibition at the Hangzhou Peace International Exhibition and Conference Centre in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou.Peter Parks—AFP/Getty Images
May 29, 2012. Xiang Xiang's masks are seen at home in Fenyang, Shanxi Province of China. Xiang Xiang, 6, was disfigured by a fire in October 2010 that left his right eye blind, his hands unable to bend, and his face disfigured.ChinaFotoPress/ZUMAPRESS.com
Feb. 19, 2012. An Afghan boy selling packed peas waits for customers on a cold and snow covered street during a snowstorm in Kabul, Afghanistan.Ahmad Nazar—AP
Sept. 19, 2012. NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) shows a 4-day old baby girl found at a road side in Ghazni, Afghanistan. The girl, named Pola by the soldiers, has been entrusted to Afghanistan State authorities.ISAF/EPA
Jan. 3, 2012. The dead body of a man, wrapped in a blanket, is seen lying near the wall of a private school in the municipality of Ecatepec on the outskirts of Mexico City.Stringer/Reuters
Jan. 11, 2012. Buddha statues with a variety of faces at the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Temple in Bintan Island, Indonesia. Five-hundred statues are situated inside the temple.Yuli Seperi—Getty Images
Oct. 31, 2012. President Barack Obama and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate greet New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on the tarmac of Atlantic City International Airport in Atlantic City, New Jersey.Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

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