Best of the decade

Journey through National Geographic’s most powerful photographs of the decade

Photograph by Lynsey Addario
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Among the subjects that have long compelled London-based photographer Lynsey Addario: maternal mortality, which she has documented in many countries; and the difficult lives of women in modern Afghanistan. The drama she encountered on a rural Afghan road in December 2010 entwined both. Surprised by the unusual sight of unaccompanied women in the countryside, Addario and the physician she was traveling with learned one of the women was pregnant, and in labor. Her husband previously had lost a wife to childbirth. His car had broken down, he was trying to locate another, and Addario and her companion drove the family to a hospital. This episode, recounted in a magazine compilation of Addario’s Afghanistan images, ended without grief. Aided by nurses, the 18-year-old mother delivered a baby girl.

Photograph by Lynsey Addario

Say the words “National Geographic,” and the first thing that comes to mind is photography.

We are known, and have been for most of the past 130 years, for taking people on visual journeys into every corner of the Earth—from the highest mountains to the deepest oceans, from jungles to deserts, from the biggest metropolises to the most remote countrysides. In the past 10 years alone, our photographers have taken 21,613,329 images in the quest to document life on this planet for our print and digital platforms. More than 21.6 million images! That’s an amazing number—and a bit terrifying if you try to narrow it down to some kind of “best” or “favorites” list.

But as the 2010s draw to a close, that’s exactly what we’ve done. We’ve chosen 15 images, by 14 photographers, that have resonated most with us in the past decade: A bear feeding on bison in an iconic American landscape. An endangered pangolin and her baby. The face of a woman who died, soon to be transplanted onto the face of another woman who wanted a second chance at life. A child bride in Yemen. The confident, direct gaze of a nine-year-old transgender girl from Kansas City, Missouri. You may have a different list of National Geographic photos that spoke most strongly to you over the past 10 years. There are, of course, no “right” answers—just images that matter to you, that touch your heart, and that can help bring awareness to make the world a better place.

Thanks for reading National Geographic.

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HAJJAH, Yemen.
The men looming over these Yemeni girls are not their fathers. For her internationally acclaimed project Too Young to Wed, American photographer Stephanie Sinclair spent years exploring societies around the world that invoke family “honor” or cultural tradition to force girls into marriage. This image of young Yemeni villagers Ghada, Tahani, and their husbands, part of a June 2011 National Geographic article, has been featured in United Nations anti-child-marriage campaigns. The UN and the United States now define protection from coerced early marriage as a basic human right.

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DJIBOUTI, Djibouti
In early 2013 National Geographic writer Paul Salopek took the first steps, literally, in a walk he expected would last seven years—21,000 miles, through four continents, retracing the first great human migrations from East Africa through the Americas. Joining him in Djibouti, along the Red Sea shore, photographer John Stanmeyer was wandering one evening when he came upon this moonlight tableau: People hoping for a mobile signal from neighboring Somalia. “I was astonished,” Stanmeyer says. “The symbol of migration today, where the only tenuous link we have to our loved ones during the act of migration is the ubiquitous phones.” As for Salopek? Still walking. Most recent stop: Myanmar. He has 13,000 miles to go.

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HOLLYWOOD, California
His name was P22, and photographer Steve Winter had heard about him for a while. National Park Service staff knew a mountain lion had somehow crossed two of the nation’s busiest freeways to settle somewhere inside Los Angeles’s Griffith Park. For “Ghost Cats,” a December 2013 National Geographic feature about elusive urban cougars, Winter hiked the park, setting up hidden motion-sensitive cameras that could be viewed remotely. More than a year later, P22 triggered one—right in front of the famous Hollywood sign, too.“ This sparked a movement to protect Southern California’s last cougars and other wildlife,” Winter says. “P22 Day is celebrated every year in Los Angeles.”

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Sent to Wyoming on assignment in 2014, British photographer Charlie Hamilton James became fascinated with the region’s animal life and ended up temporarily resettling his family in Jackson Hole. Working with the National Park Service, he set up a camera “trap,” triggered remotely by motion sensors, to document the ongoing action at a Grand Teton National Park carcass dump—a spot for setting out roadkill, away from tourists, so animal scavengers can do their natural jobs. The camera caught this adult male grizzly bullying ravens away from a bison carcass. “This is what I love most about camera traps,” says National Geographic Deputy Photography Editor Kathy Moran. “You set the stage, but you never know what’s going to be in the play.”


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HASTINGS, Sierra Leone
“This image haunts me like few others,” photographer Pete Muller says. On assignment in West Africa during a swiftly spreading 2014 Ebola epidemic, Muller was inside a Sierra Leone treatment center when a delirious infected patient bolted out of the quarantined area and tried to climb a wall to get out. This outbreak was devastating the region, making a contagious insensible person a deadly threat; it took an armed police officer and two hazmat-suited clinicians to subdue the man and return him to bed. He died 12 hours later.

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Nebraska-based Joel Sartore has spent nearly 15 years photographing animals in captivity—a visual record, he says, of the planet’s endangered abundance of wildlife. His Photo Ark, as he calls the project, now includes images of 10,000 animals, including the baby white-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis) whose mother trundled her past Sartore’s lens at a Florida wildlife facility one day in 2015. “As though I’d stepped on another planet,” Sartore says. “They are mammals, but unlike anything I’d ever seen before.” Slaughtered for their meat and the supposed curative properties of their scales, Asian and African pangolins are among the planet’s most trafficked mammals.

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FLINT, Michigan
In January 2016, after investigative reports revealed that Flint’s water had for years carried dangerous levels of lead and other contaminants, photographer Wayne Lawrence documented residents’ struggles to find clean water and come to grips with their betrayal by public officials. Lawrence first saw the Abron siblings—Antonio, 13, and his sisters Julie and India, both 12—inside a firehouse, hoisting their daily allotment of the free bottles temporarily on offer. For the home-schooling family (their mother shopped thrift stores for uniforms), this was now the only available safe water for drinking, cooking, and bathing. Lawrence, remembering that bleak Flint visit: "It was just really heartbreaking, going to home after home and hearing the same horror stories.”

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New Zealand-born photographer Robin Hammond, who has won recognition for his images of LGBTQ people around the world, met Avery Jackson while on assignment for National Geographic’s January 2017 issue, “Gender Revolution.” Hammond was photographing nine-year-olds, boys and girls, in eight countries. This nine-year-old made a special impression: Avery spent her first four years as a boy, but with the support of her family in Kansas City, Missouri, began living in 2012 as a transgender girl. The editors chose her picture for the subscribers’ edition cover—a decision that Editor in Chief Susan Goldberg says left readers “excited, horrified, concerned, and grateful.” As far as Hammond is concerned, it’s the ongoing gratitude that most resonates; teachers and young people have thanked him for helping open important conversations. “She oozed confidence and energy,” he says of Avery. “Her photo says: ‘I’m proud. I’m happy. I’m a normal little girl.’ ”

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A curtain makes a fine cape, a cardboard box a regal crown. “Princess of Tundra,” eight-year-old Kristina Khudi declares herself during this afternoon’s dress-up fun. Part of a Nenets reindeer herding family in Siberia’s far north, she’s home from a state boarding school for summer holidays. Photographer Evgenia Arbugaeva, who grew up in the Russian Arctic, joined the indigenous herders for an October 2017 story in the magazine. Their centuries-old annual trek, taking reindeer 800 miles through the Yamal Peninsula, is threatened by a warming climate and by a gas field development that pushes into Nenets herding lands.

RIVERSIDE, California
“So you want us to make you a hummingbird dinner plate?” Intrigued by the challenge of catching one of those frantic tiny tongues in action for a July 2017 magazine and video feature on new hummingbird research, Berkeley, California-based photographer Anand Varma found a local scientific glassblowing company and presented an unusual request. He wanted a transparent miniature dish that he could rig so his camera might catch birds (an Anna’s hummingbird, in this startling image) as they fed through an opening on one side. “The hardest part of getting this shot was convincing the bird to stick its bill through that ring,” Varma says. Be assured: No hummingbird was harmed, or apparently even perturbed, in the making of this image.

Video by Anand Varma. Edited by Anand Varma and Gabrielle Ewing.
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YOSEMITE, California
For a decade before Alex Honnold made his celebrated free solo up Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan—climbing the most famous rock wall on the planet, that is, alone and without ropes—photographer Jimmy Chin often had climbed with him. As part of the team documenting Honnold’s June 2017 climb for the National Geographic film Free Solo, Chin forced himself to focus as his friend, at 2,500 feet above the ground, negotiated the final pitches. “The stakes could not have been higher in this moment,” Chin says. “It represents achieving the impossible, the sublime: perfection.”


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AURORA, Colorado
For 15 years National Geographic photographer Lynn Johnson and photo editor Kurt Mutchler tracked the story of Susan Potter, a woman who declared that she wanted to be frozen after death so that her sliced-up corpse could be used to create a research database. Potter was 72 when she volunteered for the University of Colorado’s Visible Human Project. A disability rights activist who used a wheelchair, Potter thought her end would come soon. But she lived to be 87, and along with writer Cathy Newman, Johnson followed Potter through her death and the careful process of freezing and cutting her body into 27,000 slices. Their story about Potter and her complex, often difficult personality appeared in the January 2019 magazine.

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“Reverence,” photographer Lynn Johnson says, remembering the moment when she and medical staff crowded around the human face laid carefully on the operating room table before them. Just the face, a living thing, clipped away from an organ donor, not yet attached to its next recipient. “It made one question everything we know and think about identity,” Johnson says. For more than two years her friend and fellow photographer Maggie Steber had been documenting the story of Katie Stubblefield, a young Cleveland Clinic patient whose own face had been obliterated in a gunshot suicide attempt when Katie was 18. The death of another young woman made possible the facial transplant process intimately documented by Steber, Johnson, and writer Joanna Connors in National Geographic’s September 2018 issue. The operation lasted 31 hours, and it was successful. Katie has continued working on speech and facial muscles, and recently said she hopes to attend college.
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“This image took 10 years to make,” says Montana-based photographer Ami Vitale, who first encountered the northern white rhino named Sudan in 2009. One of only eight males then alive, Sudan was in a Czech zoo; last-ditch efforts to save the species included a plan to airlift Sudan and three other rhinos to a conservancy in Kenya. All four of the great animals survived the relocation, although when Vitale learned in 2018 that Sudan was dying, at 45, she knew he was now the last remaining male. At Ol Pejeta Conservancy she watched Joseph Wachira, one of Sudan’s protectors, lean in to offer Sudan one final ear rub. “This is not just a story to me,” Vitale says. “Poaching is not slowing down. We are witnessing extinction, right now, on our watch.”

To see more iconic images visit The best unpublished photos of 2019