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.
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
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