Heartbreak, triumph, wonder: The decade’s 5 most popular photos

The top five images of the decade, chosen by our viewers

Photograph by Ami Vitale
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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.”

Photograph by Ami Vitale

National Geographic photographers have taken more than 21 million images during the past decade as part of our quest to take our print and digital readers on visual journeys to all corners of the world. As the 2010s drew to a close, our editors selected 15 images, by 14 photographers, that resonated the most with us during the past 10 years.

Then we asked you to pick your favorites by voting in an Instagram Story on @natgeo. Your top five selections reflect a broad range of our coverage, with an emphasis on the natural world: The heartbreak of a dying species of rhino. The amazing way in which a hummingbird feeds itself. A bear devouring a bison, and warding off other scavengers, on an iconic American landscape. Alex Honnold, 2,500 feet above the ground, during his stunning, rope-less climb up El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. And the face of a woman who had died, soon to be transplanted onto the face of another woman who wanted a second chance at life.

It’s always perilous to try to put together a “best of” list like this, and if you don’t see your favorites in the top five, check out the rest of our best of the decade list. And don’t forget to check out The best photos of 2019 and The best unpublished photos of 2019.

And as always, thanks for reading National Geographic.

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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.
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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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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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“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.