It was a year of the angry and the rebellious scaling walls, tearing down barriers, rising up to reverse reality.
But it was also a year of carefully considered verdicts and hurriedly ended war, of mass migration and candlelight vigils, a year when many millions of people decided to take a shot, venture forth and return to life, together.
It would be easy to sum up 2021 as a year of fear and division, and it was that. But this was also a more complicated year than many: It was a time when Americans hopped up on rage and fueled by distortions breached barricades and shattered glass, rebelling against their own country’s most solemn symbol of peaceful change, but it was also a year when other Americans held the powerful to account and chose to trust in democracy and science.
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The images of 2021 tell a complex yet dramatic story. There was fire and there was rain; the West burned and New York flooded. Earth itself seemed to confront people with one test after another. As temperatures rose and storms intensified, a volcano erupted in Iceland and an earthquake leveled Haiti, again.
There was, perhaps above all, the terror of lethal disease, a second year of a virus that unraveled the fabric of daily life and managed to set people against each other in ways that defied reason. The usual questions born of insecurity — will we be okay? how can we help each other? — were joined by new uncertainties: Is this real? What should I believe? Why don’t people around me believe what I see is true?
If natural disaster were not enough, there seemed to be an overabundance of man-made anguish: A condo building in South Florida disintegrated in seconds. A shooter killed eight people at spas in the Atlanta area. Thousands died in gun violence of the kind that’s so common, it’s barely noticed beyond the place where it happens.
Halfway across the world, in Afghanistan, a place where turmoil is a constant, Americans mired in a decades-old conflict finally went home, and even that long-sought, long-awaited relief turned chaotic, divisive and deadly.
In a time of disunity, the urge to separate and isolate can be compelling, yet reality served up one reminder after another that this world is more connected and interdependent than ever before: Americans leave Afghanistan, the Taliban takes over, thousands of Afghans flee their homes, girls lose their schools and a new wave of refugees alters life in dozens of American communities.
Stressed by the pandemic, supply chains, intricately strung across the globe, tightened and sometimes broke. People worked less, and less together, and then more again, and many of them questioned why and how they worked.
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Yet through it all, the people on this planet did wondrously good things, too. Scientists concocted almost magical elixirs, vaccines and treatments that allowed many to edge back into lives they’d put on a maddeningly long hold. People gathered in large numbers once again, to mourn what they’d lost, to press for what was right, to celebrate each other.
The finest athletes on the planet gathered despite the pandemic and demonstrated what people can do when they press themselves to the max. Exceedingly adventuresome souls launched themselves into space.
And there were sunny days that were not quite that spectacular, but just ordinary triumphs of life, small victories against loneliness and division. Amid ancient conflicts and modern plagues, separated families were reunited, new leaders broke age-old barriers, and through it all, against the darkness, there was a comforting touch in the Middle East, an abiding hug among mourners in a D.C. neighborhood, the embrace of a common cause on a Russian street, the endurance of hope across a porous U.S. border, and over the Capitol, a flag that was still there.
— Marc Fisher
Experience the most memorable photos of the year with audio interviews from our photojournalists who covered the events. Washington Post Director of Photography MaryAnne Golon introduces the project. Play her introduction and the ambient music that accompanies this presentation.
Supporters of President Donald Trump scale a wall at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 while Congress meets to certify the results of the 2020 election. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
A pro-Trump mob clashes with police at the front of the Capitol. (Lev Radin/Sipa USA/AP)
Men who breached security yell as they enter the Capitol. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images)
Security officers aim their guns at a door to the House chamber after pro-Trump rioters broke the windows. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
Staff photojournalist Bill O’Leary details what it was like inside the House chamber as rioters stormed the Capitol.
Congressional staff members barricade doors and take cover after rioters breached the Capitol. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post)
Law enforcement uses tear gas to disperse the mob. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)
A plastic cover on a marble bust of former president Zachary Taylor at the Capitol appears to be stained with blood on Jan. 7. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
The day after the attack on the Capitol, debris remains on the East Front steps near the entrance to the Rotunda. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
National Guard personnel and law enforcement protect the Capitol during a rehearsal on Jan. 18 for the presidential inauguration. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
President Biden hugs his family after his swearing-in. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Vice President Harris and First Gentleman Doug Emhoff walk at the Capitol after the inauguration ceremony. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), center, speaks to Barry Berke, chief impeachment counsel, during the impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump in February. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
Trump prepares backstage before his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando in February. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Biden and Harris depart after speaking about the nation's coronavirus vaccination campaign, at the White House in May. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
Lighting strikes near the intersection of Chicago Avenue and 38th Street, known as George Floyd Square, in Minneapolis in April. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
Staff photojournalist Joshua Lott speaks about why it was important for him to cover the Derek Chauvin trial.
Toshira Garraway, left, and Courteney Ross, girlfriend of George Floyd, react to the verdict finding Derek Chauvin guilty of Floyd's murder, in Minneapolis in April. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
Tears run down the face of Emajay Driver at a protest after the fatal police shooting of his friend Daunte Wright, in April in Brooklyn Center, Minn. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
Staff photojournalist Joshua Lott recalls the powerful moment when he saw Driver for the first time.
A stun grenade tossed by police explodes during a protest outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department in April. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
Crews in Richmond remove Virginia’s biggest statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, in September. Workers sawed off the torso to transport it. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
People gather in Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington on Juneteenth, a newly declared federal holiday. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post)
The newly vaccinated Baydoun family socializes during iftar, the evening meal that breaks a day-long fast during the holy month of Ramadan, in Dearborn Heights, Mich., in April. Last year, because of the pandemic, the family did not gather for iftar. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) reacts at the Capitol to news that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended a partial moratorium on evictions in August. Bush slept outside the Capitol for three nights to protest the possible end of the moratorium. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Police clash with demonstrators protesting the jailing of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in St. Petersburg in January. (Dmitri Lovetsky/AP)
Thousands of migrants seeking asylum in the United States cross the border at the Rio Grande to gather in a makeshift camp under Del Rio International Bridge in Texas in September.
(Sergio Flores for The Washington Post)
Maria Chic, 34, right, puts a traditional Guatemalan outfit on her daughter, Adelaida, 10. Chic was separated from Adelaida after crossing the border in July 2017. She was sent back to Guatemala, and Adelaida was sent first to a foster family in New York, and then to her aunt in Florida. Chic and her daughter were reunited in June. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Immigrants arrive in Mission, Tex., after crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico in March. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
Staff photojournalist Michael Robinson Chavez describes seeing hundreds of migrants make the dangerous journey across the U.S. border.
The Caldor Fire burns into the Christmas Valley and the town of Meyers, Calif., near South Lake Tahoe in August. (Stuart Palley for The Washington Post)
Resemonde Joseph faces a broken arm and a damaged home after a magnitude 7.2 earthquake killed more than 2,000 people and left thousands homeless in southwest Haiti in August. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
Floodwater surrounds vehicles on an expressway in Brooklyn in September following flash flooding and record-breaking rainfall brought by the remnants of Hurricane Ida. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)
Jutta Schelleckes, 72, in the living room of her apartment, which was completely destroyed by the flood in July in Bad Neuenahr, Germany. (Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)
Hikers view lava flowing from the Fagradalsfjall volcano, about 25 miles west of Reykjavik, Iceland, in March. (Jeremie Richard/AFP/Getty Images)
Wild Asian elephants, part of a herd that began a rare migration of 300 miles, sleep on the outskirts of Kunming, in Yunnan province, China, in June. (China Daily/Reuters)
Taxidermied deer heads are among the items found in Clanton, Ala., in March, after tornadoes hit the state. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Crews working with a search-and-rescue dog look for survivors of the collapsed Champlain Towers South building in Surfside, Fla., in June. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
Women embrace during a #StopAsianHate candlelight vigil in Alhambra, Calif., on March 20 in memory of the eight people, including six Asian women, who were killed in Atlanta that week. (Jane Hahn for the Washington Post)
A mourner visits the memorial outside Gold Spa in Atlanta on March 20. (Hannah Yoon for The Washington Post)
Freelance photojournalist Hannah Yoon shares how she felt compelled to creatively convey a community’s grief.
A sign written in Korean says “Rest peacefully in heaven” at a memorial at the Aromatherapy Spa in Atlanta on March 19. (Hannah Yoon for The Washington Post)
Pastor Leanell McClenton comforts Caylenn and Ricky Franklin, with their son Jaydon, 10, after their 11-year-old daughter, Jordyn, died of covid, in West Memphis, Ark., in August. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Staff photojournalist Michael S. Williamson tells how he approached documenting a family who lost a child to covid-19 and was touched to hear that another family took action after seeing the coverage.
Tyrina Anderson, center in sunglasses, the mother of Taya Ashton, a 20-year-old transgender woman who was shot and killed at her apartment, joins supporters in releasing balloons at a vigil for Ashton in Hillcrest Heights, Md., in July. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
Brayonna Hinton feeds her daughter, My’onna, 5, at their home in Washington in June. My'onna is recovering after a child accidentally shot her in the neck a year before. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Family members react during a candlelight vigil in April for James Johnson and Dominque Williams, who were shot and killed by an off-duty Pentagon police officer in Takoma Park, Md. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
Palestinian protesters clash with Israeli security forces at al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem in May. (Mahmoud Illean/AP)
Gauri Mghames, 7, hides under a counter in her Gaza home's kitchen during an Israeli bombing in May. She wears headphones to block out the sound of the shelling.
(Loay Ayyoub for The Washington Post)
Freelance photojournalist Loay Ayyoub speaks about observing young children’s day-to-day lives under the constant threat of shelling.
Friends of 15-year-old Imad Khaled Hashash, who was shot and killed during a raid by Israeli forces, weep in the Balata refugee camp near Nablus in the West Bank in August. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews look at a debris-strewn site on April 30 where dozens died during a stampede at a religious festival in Mount Meron in northern Israel the night before. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)
Nurses Gokalp Balli, left, and Bilge Koc vaccinate Basra Payza against the coronavirus at her home in Van, Turkey, in February. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
People gather to cremate the body of a person who died of covid-19, while other funeral pyres burn at a cremation ground in New Delhi in April. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)
Ketty Ochobano and two of her children, Mai, 2, and Michael, 4, walk through an impoverished neighborhood to a communal kitchen in Lima, Peru, in June. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
Staff photojournalist Michael Robinson Chavez speaks about the struggles this family and others are having in Peru to survive during the pandemic.
A woman collects water from a well in the village of Moulis, in Yemen’s Maghrabah district, in August. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)
Moad al-Falus, 9, right, with his uncle and family members at a memorial for his father and brothers in Tarhuna, Libya, in March. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)
An Afghan elite special forces unit regroups after a friendly fire incident during an operation to strengthen the security perimeter at Kunduz, Afghanistan, in July. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)
A U.S. soldier points his gun toward an Afghan passenger at the Kabul airport in August, after the Taliban took over the city and thousands mobbed the airport trying to flee. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)
More than 600 Afghans pack inside a U.S. Air Force cargo plane departing Kabul for Qatar on Aug. 15. (Capt. Chris Herbert/U.S. Air Force/AP)
Taliban fighters take control of the Afghan presidential palace in Kabul on Aug. 15 after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. (Zabi Karimi/AP)
Girls in grades six and lower can attend school, including these students in Kabul in September, after the Taliban decreed that only boys could return to grades seven to 12. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)
Hannah Renfrow, her nephew Eli Hearn, and her brother Rex Renfrow pay tribute during a procession in Fairfax, Va., in September to Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Ryan C. Knauss, 23, one of 13 U.S. service members killed in a suicide bombing attack near the Kabul airport. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
The Westernaires perform during the Flying Heels Rodeo in Granby, Colo., on July 3. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
SpaceX's Inspiration4 flight, with the first all-civilian crew to reach orbit in a fully commercial mission, launches in September from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Simone Biles, the world's most accomplished gymnast, performs her dismount during the balance beam final at the Tokyo Olympic Games in August. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
Staff photojournalist Toni L. Sandys talks about how her image of Simone Biles captured the gymnast’s spirit, determination and strength at the Tokyo Olympics.
Biles holds hands with former Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney after testifying during a Senate Judiciary hearing about the FBI's handling of the Larry Nassar investigation, on Capitol Hill in September. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi talk to reporters after meeting with Democrats who are clashing over the White House’s infrastructure plan, on Capitol Hill in October. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
The Capitol dome is reflected in a window in September. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
About this story
Photo editing by MaryAnne Golon, Dee Swann, Monique Woo, Kenneth Dickerman and Troy Witcher. Copy editing by Anne Kenderdine. Audio production and sound design by Bishop Sand. Design and development by Jake Crump, Tara McCarty and Matt Callahan. Design editing by Suzette Moyer.