Each photograph selected for TIME’s Top 10 photos of 2015, carefully culled from thousands and presented here unranked, reflects a unique and powerful point of view that represents the best of photojournalism this year.
There’s no doubt that the language of photography is expanding. The authors are more varied and the audience is also growing exponentially. Technology is opening up enormous avenues and possibilities. The great photojournalists of our days continue to make exceptional pictures that hold infinite power while citizen journalists are also adding to the repertoire as “witnesses”, making pictures that provide evidence.
Turkish photographer Nilufer Demir’s (#5) astounding photograph of a dead three-year-old Alan Kurdi face down on the Turkish shore broke our collective hearts. The picture did not get its power because it was published above the fold on the front pages of newspapers across Europe and the globe, instead its power came from social media as millions of people started sharing various versions of the photograph on Facebook and Twitter. Its influence was born by the audience. More than ever, this picture proves the power of the still image and its ability to influence. It catapulted conversations and reached the highest levels of power. It’s representative of the incredible work we’ve seen on the refugee crisis. In addition to Nilufer Demir’s photograph of Alan, another picture that moved us the most was made by photographer Georgi Licovski (#6), who captured the sheer chaos of families being separated on the Macedonian border. As Georgi told TIME, “that was a day I will never forget, it was the first time I saw my colleagues cry.”
The photographs that hold the most power are quite often the ones that are the most devastating. Photographer James Nachtwey (#1) covered the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake for TIME in April and May. His picture of a mother weeping in mourning after discovering her three-year-old daughter had died, buried in the rubble, is visceral. Her grief is burned in our hearts. The scene is captured poignantly through Jim’s masterful eye.
A photograph’s power can come from its aesthetic timing, as it is the case with Goran Tomasevic’s (#3) picture after the Nigerian Presidential elections, It shows a supporter who was hit by a motorcyclist as he was celebrating in the streets. Tomasevic shows, once again, the extraordinarily kinetic gift he possesses to capture spot news.
We also selected photographs from critical news stories, such as the terror attacks in Paris, which were well covered by some of the most important photojournalists in the world. But the picture that struck us most was Peter Dejong’s (#9) photograph of a man carrying two children as panic broke out during an homage to victims. The terror and emotion he captured on their faces is just striking.
The California drought, and its deep-reaching consequences, was another critical story this year, and for us, one of the most awe-inspiring photographs was Damon Winters’ (#4) enterprising picture of properties surrounded by the desert in Rancho Mirage. Photographing from a high vantage point Damon told TIME he hoped to show “the extreme lengths we go to live, and live well, in a place that was not meant for us”. Another picture that resonated deeply with us was made of the Rocky Fire in California, which had been burning for days when Justin Sullivan (#8) photographed it. His dramatic picture hearkens a 19th century painting.
Never before has the camera been as ubiquitous as a witness. This year, we have expanded our selection to include a still from the video made by Feidin Santana (#11), who provided evidence of police officer Michael Slager’s shooting Walter Scott eight times in the back. The still image traveled from social media, to front pages and even made the cover of TIME. This is proof that the citizen journalist has an important role to play within the larger context of photography.
One of the most poetic pictures on our list is Ross McDonnell’s (#7) photograph of Ukrainian soldiers. It showcases the in-between moments during the Ukrainian conflict, which he photographed through icy trees. His image speaks to the condition in which Ukrainian Solders were conducting their operations.
Finally, 2015 gave us the ever picture of Pluto (#10), made by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. The high-resolution color image, the first of many that will be released in the coming months, was taken more than nine years after the two cameras that shot it left Earth in the fastest spacecraft ever launched into space.
Over the last few months we have been pouring over thousands of photographs that provide a snapshot of the year in news and culture. 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 this gallery.
The entirety of our year-end collection will serve as a reminder of the grim, the surprising and the off-beat that defined 2015 – 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 and Visual Enterprise.