TIME Picks the Top 10 Photos of 2015

5 minute read

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.

Bishnu Gurung sobs after her 3-year-old daughter, Rejina Gurung, was found buried in the rubble in the village of Gumda in Gorkha district, near the epicenter of last month's Nepal earthquake. May 8, 2015.
James Nachtwey: "The Nepalese mountain people were stoic and accepting when dealing with the destruction of their villages. But when faced with the loss of a loved one, such as Bishnu Gurung's infant daughter, Rejina Gurung, the expressions of grief were so intense and primal, it felt as if the mountains themselves were weeping." This photo was taken in the village of Gumda in the Gorkha district on May 8, 2015.James Nachtwey for TIME
Supporters of the presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari and his All Progressive Congress hits another supporter with a motorbike during celebrations in Kano March 31, 2015. Nigeria's opposition APC declared an election victory on Tuesday for former military ruler Buhari and said Africa's most populous nation was witnessing history with its first democratic transfer of power.
Goran Tomasevic: "I was in Kano, northern Nigeria, on assignment covering the presidential elections. When the results were announced of Muhammadu Buhari’s victory, large crowds started celebrating on the streets. The man in the picture was accidentally hit by a motorcyclist driving at full speed as he was standing by the side of the road. He fell to the ground and didn’t move or respond to others. He was quickly driven to a hospital. I think he died but I am not sure. I felt very sorry for this man. He was in the streets clearly celebrating a very important moment for him when this happened." This photo was taken in Kano on March 31, 2015.Goran Tomasevic—Reuters
Properties surrounded by desert in Rancho Mirage, Calif. The state's history as a frontier of prosperity and glamour faces an uncertain future as the fourth year of severe water shortages has prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to mandate a 25 percent reduction in non-agricultural water use. April 3, 2015.
Damon Winter: "For the first part of our long term project covering the devastating drought in the Western United States, we wanted images that got to the heart of the struggle between man and nature, the desire to conquer an inhospitable land. I searched through satellite images of Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley, looking for locations that showed this juxtaposition of the “California dream” and the harsh reality of the parched West. They weren’t hard to find. The aim wasn't to show this as a drought stricken area. This is what it always looks like. The point was to show the extreme lengths we go to live, and live well, in a place that was not meant for us. As I explored the checkerboard of communities bordering the desert along the Coachella Valley in an R22 helicopter, I came across lots of golf courses and housing developments dotted with swimming pools. I hadn’t seen this house on the satellite imagery but when I found it, I knew it said it all." This photo was taken in Rancho Mirage, Calif. on April 3, 2015. Damon Winter—The New York Times/Redux
Nilufer Demir: "In Bodrum, we were three reporters working in shifts, taking photos of the refugees preparing to sail early in the morning. On that specific night, I came to that area at 6AM as always, and while I was taking a look at the Turgutreis Beach, I saw a little dead body. As a human being, of course, I felt devastated when I saw that dead body, this little baby. But what I had to do was to pull myself together and do my job. And my job is to mirror their lives, their sufferings and the challenges they're facing during their hopeful journey. I did what my duty requires me to do, there was nothing else I could do: he was already dead. That day, the coastline of Bodrum was like a children’s graveyard." This photo was taken in Bodrum, Turkey, on Sept. 2, 2015.Nilufer Demir / DHA—AP
Children cry as migrants wait on the Greek side of the border break through a cordon of Macedonian special police forces to cross into Macedonia, near the southern city of Gevgelija, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Aug. 21, 2015.
Georgi Licovski: "The Macedonian police were given an order to shut down the illegal passage and not to let anyone through until a solution was found for the transfer of huge number of refugees that were coming from Greece. The police had their orders but the migrants had their agenda. They tried to pass the police cordon by putting the women and children in the front. The men started pushing. The police started letting through some of the women and children, and suddenly there was mass confusion and chaos all around. That was a day I will never forget. It was the first time I saw my colleagues cry and take pictures, shaken by the terrified children’s faces that were trying to find their parents, brothers or sisters in the chaos. I was taking pictures with the intention of showing the world what was happening so that no child should ever live through this again. With time and distance, I can now say that the police weren't being violent, they had orders not to let anyone pass, but the desperation of the refugees was much bigger than the policemen’s shields. This picture is very important for me, maybe one of the most important in my career, because of its many publications in newspapers around the world. [It forced] the political elite [in my country] to approach the migrant problem more seriously. This photo was taken on the Greek side of the border into Macedonia, near the southern city of Gevgelija on Aug. 21, 2015.Georgi Licovski—EPA
Ukrainian soldiers conduct operations along the road leading to the embattled town of Debaltseve in Artemivsk, Ukraine. A ceasefire began at midnight between Pro-Russian Separatists and the Ukrainian forces brokered by the EU, Russia and Ukraine. Debaltseve has become the focal point with reportedly 8000 Ukrainian forces trapped in a bottleneck inside the city. Feb. 15, 2015.
Ross McDonnell: "Debaltsevo, in Eastern Ukraine, had been encircled by Pro-Russian forces that had mounted a massive offensive to take the strategic town. Rumors swirled that up to 6,000 Ukrainian forces were trapped inside. The battle, nearing its end, had raged for weeks. We covered the situation as best we could from the closest town on the Ukrainian side, Artemivsk, convoying up and down the dangerous road between the cities, passing the carcasses of destroyed vehicles, gleaning information and photos from the muddied troops as they retreated, or awaited orders, warming themselves by small fires. That morning, it seemed as though the fight for Debaltsevo had been lost to the Pro-Russian Separatists. We were on the road early, in the blue half-light. The hoar frost had enveloped the countryside and fog sat low over the road. Between lines of tanks, GRAD rocket launchers and military transports, a group of soldiers played football in the road, their breath catching the frozen air. It was impossible not to think of World War I in that static, etheral moment. The ice and fog seemed to blanket the landscape and indeed, the emotions of the scene, temporarily delaying the shock of defeat and the reveal of the aftermath. Three Ukrainian National Guardsmen, off to the side of the road, seemingly reflect this sentiment too, their expressions in the resulting photograph, perhaps silently weighing up the consequences of war." This photo was taken along a road leading to Debaltseve in Artemivsk, Ukraine on Feb. 15, 2015.Ross McDonnell
A large plume of smoke rises from the Rocky Fire near Clearlake, Calif. Over 1,900 firefighters are battling the Rocky Fire that burned over 22,000 acres since it started earlier that week. The fire has destroyed at least 14 homes. Aug. 1, 2015.
Justin Sullivan: "The Rocky Fire had been burning for days when this photo was taken. On this particular day it was raging through tinder dry brush due to four years of severe drought. The stubborn fire exploded to nearly double its size within hours, charring more than 20,000 acres in less than 24 hours. In my years covering wildfire, I have never seen a fire grow so quickly. It was a surreal scene to be sitting along highway 20 with dozens of firefighters who were essentially waiting for the fire to come to them. The black columns of smoke filled the sky and the light from the setting sun filtered through, casting eerie light onto the landscape. It was mesmerizing to watch the thick smoke as it slowly rose from the hills. The flames reached highway 20 after 2AM and were met by dozens of fire crews who lit back fires to help contain it and keep it from jumping the road." This photo was taken near Clearlake, Calif. on Aug. 1, 2015.Justin Sullivan—Getty Images
A man carries two children as panic broke out among mourners who payed their respect at the terroristic attacks sites at restaurant Le Petit Cambodge and the Carillon Hotel in Paris. Nov. 15, 2015
Peter Dejong: "I was covering the mourners at Carillon Hotel and Le Petit Cambodge restaurant that afternoon and evening. I'm always careful when working in and with crowds. I usuallu move into a crowd to shoot an image I see, and move back to the outer ring. Given the long days and the impact this story had on me, I chose to sit and reflect next to the sea of flowers, candles and messages, shooting an occasional image at a slow shutter speed. All of a sudden somebody started screaming around the corner from Le Petit Cambodge, and in a split second my brain started racing weary of what the crowd would do. Everyone started running in multiple directions. I shot two images focusing on the person that appeared to stand still holding two children, while the rest of the mourners are running away. I'm assuming that the man and the two children where walking towards the attack sites when they got caught in the melee." This photo was taken at Le Petit Cambodge restaurant and the Carillon Hotel in Paris. Nov. 15, 2015.Peter Dejong—AP
Pluto as seen in an image taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, when the spacecraft was 476,000 miles (768,000 kilometers) from the surface. July 13, 2015. NASA/APL/SwRI/Corbis
Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute and the Principal Investigator on the New Horizons mission: "This is really the completion of a 50-year quest to explore all of the planets in our solar system NASA began under President Kennedy and finished under President Obama. I believe that 100 years from now, this image will be an icon from the year 2015. The image is actually a composite of a high-resolution black-and-white image and a somewhat smaller color image combined together. It shows about a quarter of the face of Pluto, an area more than 1000 kilometers long, bigger than the size of the state of Texas and illustrates the complex geology of the surface of this small planet. It was made by a pair of cameras on the New Horizons spacecraft and then radio transmitted back to the Earth in July when we assembled it as a color composite. At the time, Pluto was three billion miles from Earth. Traveling at the speed of light, it took four and half hours to cross that distance. The New Horizons mission came about after a 2003 report from the National Academy of Sciences placed the exploration of Pluto at the very top of the priority list for NASA planetary science missions. My team won a competition to build this mission and we built that spacecraft and the scientific payload was launched in 2006. It flew over nine and a half years – it was the fastest spacecraft ever launched and it travelled further than any spacecraft has in history to reach its primary target. The U.S. has been first to explore every planet in our solar system from Venus in 1962 to Pluto in 2015. NASA and the U.S. has led the way." This photo was taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, when the spacecraft was 476,000 miles (768,000 kilometers) from Pluto’s surface. The photo was released on July 13, 2015.NASA/APL/SwRI/Corbis
In this image from video, Walter Scott is shot by police officer Michael Thomas Slager in Charleston, S.C., on April 4, 2015.
Feidin Santana: "When I took my phone out, I did it mostly because [of] all the cases that are happening right now around the nation, I just took my phone out so the police [could] be aware that someone was present, [that] there was a witness over there. I did it because I have watched those videos… all those incidents. When I took my phone out, it was just to prevent anything bad [from happening]." In this image from video, Walter Scott is shot by police officer Michael Thomas Slager in Charleston, S.C. April 4, 2015.Feidin Santana

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