Every year, we look at the photos that moved us most. The funny, frustrating, and poignant images that we linger on a little more than we did on other photos because of how they make us feel. The famed photographer Ansel Adams called this feeling the measure of photographic excellence when he said, "A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense."
This year, from the almost two million images National Geographic received from photographers all over the world, we chose our favorite 30. Favorite, of course, is subjective. How you feel about a photo depends on your mood, the time of day when you see it, a childhood memory it might evoke. Selecting photographs is notoriously difficult. Narrowing down emotionally-powerful images is even harder—a little like picking among favorite family members.
But even among relatives, some usually stand out. Based on sales of our magazine and views online, one of the most striking images we published this year was part of our special issue on gender. The topic has changed our understanding of biology and identity, and on the cover of National Geographic's January edition, we published a photo of nine-year-old Avery Jackson, who has lived as an openly transgender girl since she was five. National Geographic editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg loved what the image conveyed—strength and pride. Both were unspoken, but are unmistakable owing to the power of photography.
Altogether, the collection was challenging to curate, which may go some way in reflecting an otherwise challenging year. But light and beauty often have a way of breaking through. "It's been a difficult year for many people," says National Geographic photo editor Jehan Jillani. "But while selecting these photos, I was reminded of how beautiful and complex our world is."