TIME Picks the Top 10 Photos of 2011

James Nachtwey for TIME
James Nachtwey for TIME
James Nachtwey. Kesennuma, Japan. March 15, 2011

The house was not destroyed; it was gutted, left like a ravaged beast in a water hole, its entrails exposed. The banal construction materials we all take for granted - insulation, ductwork, posts and beams, became emblems of dread, brutally revealing the fragility of our existence in the face of nature. Below the surface of the river the roof of a car slowly materialized, like a phantom tomb. Four days after a tsunami violently obliterated the north east coast of Japan, the silence and the calm were eerie. Fires from broken gas lines were still burning. The earth and sky were merged, and the floating house appeared as a mirage, taunting one’s sense of reality. How might the world end? During the Cold War, with the threat of nuclear annihilation, we feared it might end in fire. With the melting of the glaciers, the floods in Asia and two major tsunamis in the first decade of the current millennium, perhaps we’ve had a preview of an apocalypse by water.

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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