Photograph by Robin Hammond
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Almaz relishes the growing cultural scene in Lagos, Nigeria. Here she poses at the African Artists’ Foundation. ‘’Lagos is a very bubbly society,’’ she says. ‘’If you want to make something happen really, really bad, come to Lagos. It will happen, trust me.’’
Photograph by Robin Hammond

Pictures We Love: Gazes That Draw Us In

As the year began to come to a close, we asked National Geographic staff who work closely with photography—through the magazine, Your Shot, News, Travel, and Proof—to choose a photo from 2015 that they just can’t stop thinking about. There’s no formula for what makes an image resonate—it can be a piercing gaze, the perfect light, or a tender moment that strikes a chord with our editors. Over the coming days, we’ll reveal the 2015 photographs they found most memorable and why.

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Catalina, 17 years old. After being abandoned at birth, she grew up in an orphanage, then lived in Bucharest’s tunnels starting at age 12. Photographer Massimo Branca says Catalina used to smile with caution and a little shame, because a couple of years earlier she had lost her front teeth. “One Girl’s Tunnel Life: Under the Streets of Bucharest,” June 2015 Photograph by Massimo Branca

She looks like a model in a punk magazine. Beautiful dark eyes. An edgy tattoo and slightly tousled hair. She looks calm, introspective, and confident. But look closer and you’ll see the scabs on her knuckles, dirt under her nails, and bruises on her veins. This is Catalina. She was a 17-year-old homeless Romanian girl who was abandoned at birth, raised in an orphanage, and, at age 12, began her life underground in Bucharest’s infamous street tunnels. Like most tunnel residents, she became addicted to intravenous drugs and acquired HIV. And, like many of them, she died an early death, succumbing to a brain infection a month after turning 18.

Photographer Massimo Branca documented Catalina’s life as part of a larger project on Bucharest’s tunnel residents. He says that while at first glance his photos can appear shocking, he wants people to feel compassion for his subjects and understand that despite their faults, they are worthy of empathy, consideration, and love.

Since interviewing Branca about his project, this photo of Catalina has stayed with me—speaking to the power of portraiture and ensuring her memory does live on, even though she is no longer with us.

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Unika Vajracharya, six, takes to her throne on her first day as the Kumari of Patan, in Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley, her feet resting on an offering tray and a snake god guarding her head. “The Living Goddesses of Nepal,” June 2015 Photograph by Stephanie Sinclair

This year, I am especially thankful for Stephanie Sinclair’s beautiful photographs of kumaris. In Nepali tradition a kumari is a chosen prepubescent girl from the Newar ethnic group who is believed to be the embodiment of a goddess. Worshiped until puberty, kumaris are said to have special powers and provide a connection to the divine.

In college I studied abroad in Nepal and stood in Durbar Square during the festival of Indra Jatra, where the sacred kumari is paraded through the crowd. I never saw the kumari, and Sinclair’s photographs allowed me to see now what I did not then: an intimate and behind-the-scenes glimpse of these young girls, the tradition and ritual in both its routine and complexity.

I was especially interested to see kumaris through Sinclair’s lens. The worshiping of young girls seemed a contrast to the human rights issues facing young women and girls that she passionately covers around the world. In the past 15 years Nepal has been through a massacre of the royal family, a Maoist uprising, and, most recently, devastating earthquakes. I am thankful for Sinclair’s photographs of the kumari tradition, images that will endure despite the changes that may come.

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Almaz relishes the growing cultural scene in Lagos, Nigeria. Here she poses at the African Artists’ Foundation. “Lagos is a very bubbly society,” she says. “If you want to make something happen really, really bad, come to Lagos. It will happen, trust me.” “Africa’s First City,” January 2015 Photograph by Robin Hammond

Edward Benfield, Photographic Coordinator, National Geographic Magazine

Robin Hammond’s portrait series, featured in the January issue of National Geographic, depicts a variety of unique characters in the Nigerian boomtown of Lagos. I think this portrait of a woman named Almaz is both striking and elegant. Her style and posture are reminiscent of the mid-20th century, yet she provides a glimpse of an edgy, modern African culture we hardly see. This series reveals the faces and voices of a burgeoning Nigeria that serve, like Almaz’s unfaltering gaze, as a reminder that there’s a whole continent of opportunity to be had in the 21st century.

Discover more of our favorite images from 2015 in these related “Pictures We Love” posts: