In 2020, showing your face to the world often meant keeping half of it covered. And yet—even partly obscured—our faces can’t help but tell the story of where we’ve been, and all we’ve been through, in the past year. The pandemic touched the lives of each of us. But as this gallery of portraits commissioned by TIME in the past year shows, even in the hardest times, we draw on reserves of strength we didn’t know we had. To understand 2020, all you need to do is read these faces.
This is a year that robbed us of so much—though it also challenged us to take stock of what’s left and move forward. Seven-year-old Sarah Rugendyke sits amid the ruins of her pink play castle in Cobargo, New South Wales, in the aftermath of a wave of deadly bushfires that ripped through Australia early in the year. A drag performer injured in Beirut’s port explosion, his rib cage tightly bandaged, his face masked to protect against COVID-19, looks straight into the lens, as if defying any force that would dare damage his house or destroy his beautiful city. A Manhattan devoid of tourists means less work for taxi drivers. But Mohamed Eleissawy, who has been driving a cab for 30 years, keeps going. Gloved and masked, his face framed by the driver’s seat window, he represents not just New York’s ability to endure, but the spirit of cities everywhere—places where people abide, adjust and rebuild when necessary.
Kim: Danny Kim for TIME; Biden: Kelia Anne for TIME; When the World Stops: David Ryder for TIME; Kushner: Stefan Ruiz for TIME; Hong Kong: Adam Ferguson for TIME; Fisher: Elizabeth Bick for TIME; Badgley: Lauren Lancaster for TIME; Megan Thee Stallion: Dana Scruggs for TIME; Pelosi: Philip Montgomery for TIME
The faces in these images also tell us a lot, without words, about what it means to be a determined problem solver: Chef José Andrés, through his organization, World Central Kitchen, mobilizes to get food to where it’s needed. His eyes alone, both resolute and kind, say, “This is how you do it.” The founders of Black Lives Matter—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi—show the boldness and warmth you need to bring change to a country, and a world, that’s been all too slow to recognize injustice.
Our entertainers, too, galvanize us: Megan Thee Stallion, a modern goddess in a golden dress, projects the kind of deep confidence that’s built up in layers of life experience. And an enigmatic portrait of best-selling author Elena Ferrante is really a portrait of an idea of Elena Ferrante, a nod to the reality that as readers, we’re part of a writer’s world of creation; it’s they who create the universe, but we must be adventurous enough to step into it. The same is always true of a great picture: It’s an invitation to connect with a face, a spirit, a way of thinking.
These are the faces that tell the story of 2020, in all its pain and complexity, but also in its moments of joy. — Stephanie Zacharek
Joe Biden, presidential candidate and former Vice President, speaks to his supporters in Fort Dodge, Iowa, on Jan. 21.
Cheryl Chutter, 51, photographed with her son at home in Stamford, Conn. Chutter, who was diagnosed with COVID-19 on March 17, thinks she was infected when she attended a birthday party in Westport in early March.
Nour Saliba stands in her apartment in the Mar Mikhael area of Beirut on Aug. 6, two days after the deadly explosion at the city’s port, seen through her blown-out window. "After the Explosion," Aug. 31 issue.
Myriam Boulos for TIME
Andrea, a drag performer in Beirut who was injured in the Aug. 4 port blast. "After the Explosion," Aug. 31 issue.
Robert De Niro, photographed at entertainment mogul Guy Oseary and Madonna’s “The Party” after the 2020 Academy Awards in February.
JR for TIME
Nellie Yellowhorse, 90, at her family’s ranch home in the Navajo Nation; she lives with her two elderly sisters in the house, which has no running water. "Tapped Out," March 2 issue.
Matt Black—Magnum Photos for TIME
Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, meets with her staff on Capitol Hill on Dec. 5, 2019. "Pelosi's Play," Jan. 20 issue.
Philip Montgomery for TIME
The Rev. William J. Barber II at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C., on Jan. 27, before a backdrop showing the North Carolina house of representatives chamber where he was arrested in 2011. "The Equalizers," March 2 issue.
Sarah Rugendyke, 7, sits on a play castle that was burned on her family’s property in Cobargo on Jan. 20; an out-of-control bushfire devastated the tourist town about 240 miles south of Sydney on New Year’s Eve. "Forgotten Country," Feb. 3 issue.
Adam Ferguson for TIME
Elissa DeFranceschi, Drexel University Class of 2020, with her boyfriend in Philadelphia. "Unlucky Graduates," June 1 issue.
Jared Kushner, White House senior adviser. "Inside Game," Jan. 27 issue.
Jeanne Dietrich, a Bernie Sanders supporter who brought the Senator's book to be signed, in Iowa.
Devin Yalkin for TIME
Ben Crump, attorney for George Floyd's family. “Justice for George would be that the police officers who tortured him to death be held fully accountable to the full extent of the law,” Crump told the photographer on June 7. "The Overdue Awakening," June 22 issue.