Protesters and counter-protesters meet outside of the Supreme Court at the Women's March and Rally for Abortion Justice in Washington, on Oct. 2.
Elizabeth Bick for TIME
December 17, 2021 8:06 AM EST

Some years, when viewed in retrospect, resemble nothing so much a swirl, all movement and color, no one thing dominant. Others feel like a mountain we will live in the shadow of for a long while. The year just ending is more like a checkerboard, though a checkerboard with more than two colors, and its squares staggered at random heights: some towers, some pits and some elevated just enough to trip a person.

It was not easy to find your footing in 2021.

That much is clear from the best of the images captured by photojournalists for TIME over the last 12 months. The same U.S. Capitol building that one day was under assault by supporters of a losing candidate—the arm of one intruder finding leverage on marble balustrade; another reclining in a ransacked office—reverted, just two weeks later, back to its role as ceremonial backdrop for the peaceful transfer of power.

The COVID-19 pandemic would begin a retreat as welcome (and, it turned out, as fragile) as a baby coming off a ventilator. But strife waited in the return to semi-normal life: abortion rights protests and Latin Americans suspended in the limbo of migration.

Saumya Khandelwal for TIME; Adam Ferguson for TIME

The bad news: climate change grew only easier to photograph, a crisis visible in a heat wave that made an ice machine the best friend of a polar bear in an Oregon zoo. The better news was the cool buoyancy of proposed solutions: a celebrated chef harvesting grain from sea grass, and a worker doing safety training for offshore wind farms by bobbing in the North Atlantic.

There was joy out there in 2021. No previous image of a politician’s spouse captured what Doug Emhoff threw off when, while touring Elizabeth, N.J. America’s Second Gentleman came upon a group of high school students doing yoga, and struck a tree pose in a blazer and slacks. And what Ruddy Roye caught in a Minneapolis hotel ballroom when the family of George Floyd heard the word “guilty” in the trial of Derek Chauvin looked a lot like transcendence.

Yet if progress could be detected in 2021, momentum was harder to detect. No single image could capture so complex a year. But the photograph on the cover a May TIME cover—of a COVID-19 victim being carried across the scorched earth of a New Delhi crematorium—managed to contain at least the iconography of the overlapping crises that made it such a challenge to navigate.—Karl Vick

A U.S. soldier in Djibouti rests in the triple-digit heat during a joint exercise with French forces.
Emanuele Satolli for TIME
A view of Lake Oroville through trees burnt by a previous fire season, in Calif. on Jul. 2.
Adam Ferguson for TIME
As Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill read the final guilty verdict in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, George Floyd's family, close friends and advisers who gathered in Minneapolis on April 20 to watch the verdict in semi-private transitioned from cries to cheers. From left in front row: the Rev. Al Sharpton; Brandon Williams, a nephew who Floyd thought of like a son; Williams' longtime girlfriend Tiffany Hall, who knew Floyd for 16 years; and Rachel Noerdlinger, in the red coat, who works with Sharpton's National Action Network.
Ruddy Roye for TIME
A worker enters a “clean room” at chipmaker TSMC’s headquarters in Hsinchu, Taiwan, on Sept. 10.
Billy H.C. Kwok for TIME
Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman confronts protesters as they storm the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6.
Christopher Lee for TIME
This 11-min. time-lapse in March shows the final step of production of a COVID-19 vaccine: technicians at BioNTech’s Marburg complex filter the vaccine before pumping it into bulk packages ready for shipping to a filling and labeling facility elsewhere in Germany.
Luca Locatelli for TIME
Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, practices his tree pose with a yoga class during a visit to New Jersey on Oct. 19.
Landon Nordeman for TIME
Nora, a polar bear, is seen in the Polar Bear Passage exhibit at the Oregon Zoo in Portland, on June 28.
Adam Ferguson for TIME
Paul Doolan floats in the water during an emergency survival course at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Bourne, Mass.
Tony Luong for TIME
An empty waiting room inside the Jackson Women’s Health Organization on Oct. 29.
Stacy Kranitz for TIME
Eighteen months after her son Jaguar was killed in Afghanistan, Sylvia Gutierrez reflects on his life and the end of the war.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Max hikes above Craggy Wash Campground outside Lake Havasu City, Az. on Feb. 25.
Nina Riggio for TIME
Chairs for officials and guests are set up one day before the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in Washington.
Dina Litovsky for TIME
Juan Martín, center, of Aponiente works on the seagrass fields planted near Ángel León’s restaurant.
Paolo Verzone for TIME
Limousin cows in Farmer John’s pasture. Mosa Meat will cultivate their cells in a lab to grow into hamburger meat that is genetically identical, no slaughter required.
Ricardo Cases for TIME
Protesters gather in Freedom Plaza for the rally at the Women's March and Rally for Abortion Justice in Washington.
Elizabeth Bick
Crowds gather to honor George Floyd following the guilty verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis on April 20.
Ruddy Roye for TIME
The sunroom in the Gutierrez family’s two-story brick home in San Antonio is decorated with remembrances of their fallen son.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Jesus Antonio Carrillo Mendoza, 28, takes a nap in Higueras in the Mexican state of Veracruz, on March 23 near cargo trains used by migrants to travel northward through Mexico.
Yael Martinez—Magnum Photos for TIME
Psychologist Patricia Galarza leads a group therapy session about how to say goodbye to your friends with the children living at the San Juan Apóstol migrant shelter.
Meridith Kohut for TIME
Service members stand guard at the Capitol ahead of the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris on Jan. 20.
Philip Montgomery for TIME
A pro-Trump rioter climbs the walls of the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Flowers attached to barriers on the beach near where the Champlain Towers South collapsed.
Ysa Pérez for TIME
Two students during firearms training at a shooting range in Missouri on March 6.
Joe Martinez for TIME
Dana Campbell plays 'You Are My Sunshine' on the harmonica before being vaccinated in his home in Elkview.
Rebecca Kiger for TIME
Muslim women break their fast with iftar and chat.
Eli Hiller for TIME
Kids climb on stacks of boxed kitchenware at the corner of Ludlow and Hester Streets in New York City, on Sept. 1.
Daniel Arnold for TIME
A man steps out of his tent when medics arrive for a check-in at a homeless encampment in Wheeling, W.Va., on Dec. 18.
Rebecca Kiger
National anti-abortion groups like Live Action protest at the Jackson clinic ahead of a Supreme Court hearing.
Stacy Kranitz for TIME
Jared Isaacman prepares for a ride in his MiG-29UB fighter jet during a crew training event in Belgrade, Mont., on Aug. 7.
Philip Montgomery for TIME
Students in tactical training at the Lincoln University Police Academy in Jefferson City, Mo., on March 12.
Joe Martinez for TIME
Respiratory therapist Diane Gelpi administers oxygen to two-month-old Carvase Perrilloux after he was taken off a ventilator at Children’s Hospital New Orleans on Aug. 20.
Kathleen Flynn for TIME
President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris arrive at the East Front steps of the Capitol prior the 2021 Presidential Inauguration.
Dina Litovsky for TIME
Georgia Horton, center, has used some of her Compton Pledge funds for supplies she needs to preach the gospel virtually during the pandemic.
Kovi Konowiecki for TIME
Xiomara plays with her baby in the nursery of the San Juan Apóstol migrant shelter. After fleeing gang violence in El Salvador, she arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border pregnant with her fourth child hoping to claim asylum. She gave birth in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, with the help of volunteers.
Meridith Kohut for TIME
A nine-year-old boy plays under the bridge in Coatzacoalcos in the Mexican state of Veracruz on ​​March 25. He and his family had been traveling for 16 days, 14 of which were spent walking, since leaving their home in Comayagua, Honduras.
Yael Martinez—Magnum Photos for TIME
George Floyd's brother, Philonise Floyd, visits a protest art installation on April 1.
Ruddy Roye for TIME
Capitol Police officers watch a mob of supporters for President Donald Trump through a partially broken window of the Capitol in Washington, on Jan. 6.
Christopher Lee for TIME
More Must-Read Stories From TIME

Contact us at

Read More From TIME