TIME Picks the Best Viral Photos of 2011

U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' office—Handout/Reuters
U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' office—Handout/Reuters
The intimate close up, literally touching, cell phone image of two holding hands brought a national issue down to the simplest of forms. The hands belong to astronaut Mark Kelly and his wife Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords. The photograph taken on Jan 9, 2010 was the first to be released by the Giffords family after she was shot in the head at point-blank range by gunman Jared Loughner at a public meeting outside a supermarket in Tucson. Prior to the shooting Giffords had been depicted on Republican Sarah Palin's website between the crosshairs of a gun sight. "When people do that they have to realize there are consequences to that action," Giffords stated at the time. Her recovery has been closely tracked by the American public, and Giffords was even there to witness her husband's Endeavour space shuttle launch on May 16, 2011.

Spontaneous snapshots. Intimate moments. Unexpected exposures. There was no one formula for this year’s most viral photographs. Most were based on news events, such as the death of longtime Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi—but these photos ended up becoming the news themselves. They shocked us. They awed us. They inspired us to feel. But the most powerful feeling was the impulse to share.

The best viral images of 2011 are those we found flooding our email inboxes and Twitter feeds this year. One thing weaves the images together: each photographer netted a once-in-a-lifetime picture. From Royal Wedding mania and a bloodied despot to an utterly unexpected leopard on the loose, photographers both professional and amateur brought us the scenes of unpredictability and chaos that gripped our world over the past 12 months. As shocking as the subject matter is the simplicity of some images. A few came from mobile phones. Most were snapped without a thought of—or time to handle—composition or lighting. One was even taken by a man who would be dead minutes later.

Given that the Internet is a notoriously fickle beast, it’s impossible to predict which photos will score a hit. Here, LightBox looks back on the photos we couldn’t help but share. —Nick Carbone

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