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