Mariana Flores, Itzel Schnaas and two anonymous women photographed in Mexico City. "Dozens of Women Accused Famous Intellectual Andrés Roemer of Sexual Abuse. They Came Together to Make the World Listen," July 5 issue.
Tania Franco Klein for TIME
December 16, 2021 7:00 AM EST

Faces always tell a story, often a more nuanced and complete one than words can convey. The portraits TIME has commissioned over the past year speak volumes about where we’ve been and what we’ve been feeling throughout 2021. This was a year of exhaustion mixed with hope, a season of optimism tempered with caution. By January, we knew that several COVID-19 vaccines had been approved, bringing a promise that life could soon return to something more like normal. By December, the triumph of that promise had been dulled by a death toll that continues to rise, fueled at least partly by vaccine hesitancy, as well as by the rise of variants. No wonder we’re all stressed out.

And yet the faces in these pictures don’t speak of despair, even in cases where these subjects are facing tremendous hardship and loss. All of us must at one time or another cope with circumstances that seem insurmountable—but somehow we manage, and empathy wrought from our shared experiences is what shapes us as human beings. To see Jody Marquess, of Phoenix, Ariz., standing in the room where his stepfather died during this year’s deadly heatwave, is to bear witness to the weight of grief. An image of Kenyan couple Festus and Veronica Parkolwa, standing at the entrance of what used to be their home, now destroyed by floods, forces us to reckon with the devastating effects of climate change in countries all over the world. These are events we believe can never happen to us—until they do. Photographs allow us to connect with one another, to look into the eyes of a stranger and recognize a part of ourselves there.

From left, top row: Mohamed Sadek for TIME, Pari Dukovic for TIME, Wynne Neilly for TIME; Middle row: Ruvén Afanador for TIME, Kanishka Sonthalia for TIME, Christopher Lee for TIME; Bottom row: Emanuel Hahn for TIME, Djeneba Aduayom for TIME, Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. for TIME

In these faces we also see joy and boldness. An incandescent portrait of Amanda Gorman, whose stirring inauguration poem ignited an interest in poetry in young people everywhere, represents the spirit of the arts in the broader sense: poetry and music, painting and drama, live on because successive generations come to care deeply about them. Pop singer Olivia Rodrigo, just 18 years old, captivated teenagers everywhere—even former teenagers—with an album of confessional songs that gave us all permission to vent our bottled anxiety. Her portrait shows a young woman who’s self-assured but not cocky, just uncertain enough about life and the world to help us navigate it too. Then there’s Simone Biles, who can achieve physical feats most of us can barely dream of. Yet her gaze meets the lens squarely, reminding us that this is a young woman who had the courage to step out of the spotlight at the Tokyo Olympics, declaring that enough was enough. In ensuring her own mental and emotional well-being, she gave others the courage to look after their own as well.

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These portraits show people whose achievements have both thrilled the world and drawn harsh criticism, like the entertaining, aggravating, visionary zillionaire Elon Musk. And then there are those whose skill, knowledge and fortitude have already saved countless lives: the scientists who developed the very vaccines that kicked off our year of cautious hope. To look at the face of scientist Katalin Kariko is to see a person who, with her colleagues, would not give up until she’d cracked that code. Biology and biochemistry are a kind of poetry, a language that speaks directly to our bodies, to how our cells function and thrive. And so we move forward into 2022, but not before casting one last look at the faces of those who helped us get here.—Stephanie Zacharek

Amanda Gorman photographed in LA on Jan. 29, 2021. "The Black Renaissance," Feb. 15 issue.
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Jane Goodall. "The Enduring Hope of Jane Goodall,"Oct. 11 issue.
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Tommy Dorfman. "Tommy Dorfman Would Like to Clarify," July 22.
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Cathy Park Hong. "The 100 Most Influential People," Sept. 27 issue.
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Dua Lipa. "TIME 100 Next," March 1 issue.
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Shannon Brewer. "Inside Mississippi’s Last Abortion Clinic," Nov. 22 issue.
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Becky Kennedy, pictured on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. "How Dr. Becky Became the Millennial Parenting Whisperer," July 5 issue.
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Imam Yassir Fazaga at the Memphis Islamic Center in Cordova, Tenn. "Muslim Americans Bring the Fight Against Surveillance to the Supreme Court," Sept. 16.
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A worker who say they have faced abuse at the Hippo Knitting factory, concealing their identity for fear of retribution. "Workers in Factory That Makes Kate Hudson's Fabletics Activewear Allege Rampant Sexual and Physical Abuse," July 7 issue.
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Oksana Vasyakina, photographed during a remote portrait session. "How Russia's Feminist Poets Are Changing What It Means to Protest," Dec. 21.
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Festus and Veronica Parkolwa stand at the entrance of their former home by Lake Baringo. "Environmental Crises Are Forcing Millions Into Cities. Can Countries Turn Climate Migrants Into an Asset?" April 26 issue.
Khadija Farah for TIME
Kate Winslet. "The 100 Most Influential People," Sept. 27 issue.
Mark Peckmezian for TIME
District Attorney Fani Willis at the Fulton County Courthouse. "Atlanta’s First Black Female District Attorney Is at the Center of America's Converging Crises," Oct. 25 issue.
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Benjerman Xander, pictured at his home in Portland, Ore. "America's Foster Care System Is a Dangerous Place for Trans Teens. Now They're Fighting for Change," Dec. 7.
Ricardo Nagaoka for TIME
Timothée Chalamet. "Next Generation Leaders," Oct. 25 issue.
Ruvén Afanador for TIME
Billie Eilish. "The 100 Most Influential People," Sept. 27 issue.
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Chuck Schumer in his office at the Capitol. "The Great Kibitzer: How Chuck Schumer Got the Senate Moving Again," Sept. 13 issue.
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Leo, a member of the Compton Pledge guaranteed income program, with his daughter, left, and wife at their home in Compton. "Inside the Nation's Largest Guaranteed Income Experiment," Oct. 11 issue.
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Elliot Page photographed in Toronto. "Elliot Page Is Ready for This Moment," March 29 issue.
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Vanessa Nakate photographed in Berlin. "Vanessa Nakate Wants Climate Justice for Africa," Nov. 8 issue.
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Olivia Rodrigo. "Entertainer of the Year 2021," Dec. 27 issue.
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Elon Musk. "Person of the Year 2021," Dec. 27 issue.
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