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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.