TIME Picks the Top 10 Photos of 2011

Adam Ferguson—VII for TIME
Adam Ferguson—VII for TIME
Adam Ferguson. Paktika Province, Afghanistan. September 10, 2011

I was patrolling with Charlie Company, 2-28 Infantry, 172nd Infantry Brigade 5 km from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border when we were ambushed. The Captain had just made the call to head back to base when bullets seared the still tree leaves around us. Sergeant Daniel Quintana was shot in the first minute of fighting and as the fighting intensified, then waned, the Army Medics worked tirelessly to stabilize him, but it was a losing battle. This was the first time Charlie Company had seen one their own injured since being recently deployed to Afghanistan, and it felt like it. Soldiers on the periphery of where the Medics worked on Quintana had wired excited stares focused on the surrounding tree lines that provided cover for their enemy. Closer to the Medics soldiers crouched stunned, some cried, others talked to Quintana hoping to stimulate a fading life. Specialist Michael Miller, age 23 from Melbourne, Florida, sat at the feet of Sergeant Quintana, silent, with a glassy haunted stare. I saw Specialist Miller through the drama and crouched my way around to him. I tapped him on the shoulder and when he turned and gazed into my lens I not only saw an image from Afghanistan, but an image that could have been made in Vietnam. His expression wreaked of the same senselessness and confusion, the same futility of a life lost under equivocal circumstances.

We’re in the business of making icons. From immortal covers to probing profiles to our annual Person of the Year, TIME has always shaped the first draft of history with the personalities and moments that mattered most. We get iconic. But 2011 has been a year of iconoclasm: powerful orthodoxies were challenged, notorious villains slain and dictators came crashing down. Along the way, people took photographs.

Our top 10 photos of 2011 capture a year as tumultuous and transformative as any in recent memory. The photos’ captions are in the words of the photographers who shot them. We take you from a tiny Washington control room, crammed with the great eminences of the capital, to the courageous multitudes massed in Tahrir Square. We behold the wrath of nature and the horrors that men inflict on one another. A scene of staggering human depravation in Somalia is joined by an uncanny glimpse of human genius: a NASA shuttle blazes into space, tethered to earth only by a thin line of smoke.

2011 will be remembered as a year of defiance and few acts of resistance will be as memorable to Americans as that ugly incident in California when a police officer fired pepper spray straight into the faces of the college students who refused his orders. Their rebellion — and viral send-ups of the pepper-spraying cop — will live on into the next year. But what of the young American soldier staring at the lens in Afghanistan? In his bewildered gaze is all the terror of war. It’s a look that must have lasted only a fleeting second, yet, haunted with a piercing sadness, stretches across centuries of human experience. It’s iconic. —Ishaan Tharoor

MORE: See the Top 10 of Everything in 2011

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