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TIME Picks the Most Surprising Photos of 2012

Clint Eastwood’s appearance and speech to an empty chair at the GOP convention stupefied us, Felix Baumgartner’s jump from 24 miles above the Earth astounded us and Gabby Douglas’ Olympic performance thrilled us. But now that it’s on the wane, we can step back and report that, all in all, 2012 held relatively few major surprises. Perhaps one reason for the year’s ho-hum factor is that several long-anticipated events the Mars Curiosity rover landing; the London Olympics; the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee; the U.S. elections set a tone of predictability for a year that, in large part, failed to ignite.

Granted, there were some genuine scandals, which always raise eyebrows (if not the level of national discourse): the Petraeus affair, Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace and pictures of a naked royal prince gallivanting with friends in Vegas, of all places.

In front of the ubiquitous TV cameras, Angelina Jolie courted publicity at the Oscars, while Rihanna and Chris Brown shamelessly courted controversy everywhere. That it was all so baldly contrived hardly stopped the media from buying right into it.

A calculated, cautious and utterly uninspiring American presidential campaign contrasted with the hope and optimism of four years ago.The promise of the Arab Spring gave way to protests against the new government in Egypt, a deadly attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi and a bloody civil war in Syria that shows no signs of a resolution.

The surprises, when they did come, were brutal shocks rather than thrilling or uplifting wonders. The shooting death of Trayvon Martin and the movie theater rampage in Aurora, Colo., left us three parts numb and one part seething with a kind of violent despair.

We marked solemn anniversaries, like the 100th year since the sinking of the Titanic and the 50th since the death of Marilyn. linkwheel . proveedor factura electrnica . Mick, Keith and the rest of the Stones kept rolling to mark their own 50th anniversary, but they did so with an utterly foreseeable bombast.

It was left to a Korean YouTube sensation riding an invisible horse to truly surprise and entertain us this year. But even then the novelty and fun rapidly wore thin, as Psy tributes from the likes of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, Eaton school boys and countless others lay siege to the Internet.

And yet … in the face of what can really only be called a rather disappointing year, TIME presents a gallery of images from the past twelve months that did, despite everything, manage to surprise us: pictures that, we hope and trust, will in some small way redress the flaws of a year that, despite spectacles as wondrous as a man falling to earth from space and a Hollywood icon chatting with a chair, ultimately fell a little flat.

Revisiting Misrata, After Tim and Chris

TIME contract photographer Yuri Kozyrev and I recently spent two weeks driving across Libya, from east to west, surveying the aftermath of the Arab Spring’s most thorough revolution to get a sense of the lessons learned and the challenges that still lie ahead for the vast, oil-rich country. The war-ravaged city of Misrata was one of the key stops on our journey, not only for its significance as perhaps the most brutally repressed flashpoint in Libya’s uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, but also because of its significance on the emotional map of many foreign correspondents who covered this war, myself and Yuri included. Yuri lost one of his close friends here, Tim Hetherington. Hetherington, an award-winning British photographer and director, was killed along with the great American photographer Chris Hondros, while covering the fighting on Misrata’s Tripoli Street on April 20, 2011. The two had travelled, along with other journalists, to Misrata by boat from the rebel-held eastern city of Benghazi.

At the time, Misrata was under a fierce and brutal siege by Gaddafi’s forces, but the city had become a symbol of the Libyan resistance—and Gaddafi’s violent tactics to stop it. Yuri was in frequent contact with Hetherington at the time, hoping to make the same perilous journey by boat. “I thought it was very important to go there,” he told LightBox this month. “It was almost impossible to cover the war from the eastern front line, and Misrata was a hotspot.”

Yuri never made it there; the sudden deaths of Hetherington and Hondros put an end to those plans. So our trip last month marked his first visit. “We had never heard about Misrata before the war, but when the war happened, Misrata was a very important place. And not just Misrata, but Tripoli Street,” he says. “For me it was on a personal level. It was in the news, and everybody mentioned it. But for me, it’s also about friends.”

Seeing Tripoli Street was hard for Yuri. There were moments, as we surveyed the wreckage, moving silently past block after block of shell-shocked neighborhoods, that I could see the grief on his face. Misrata’s war museum—“The Ali Hassan Gaber Exhibit,” named for the al-Jazeera cameraman killed covering the revolution—is something we came across by chance on our first day in the city. In it, Misrata’s residents and former fighters have meticulously documented the horrors of their city’s experience in war. There are rows of rockets, missiles, and tanks; clothing and furniture hauled away from Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli; photographs of the rebels’ gruesome injuries; official documents detailing regime corruption; and the portraits of all 1,215 of the city’s martyrs. Yuri told Lightbox what it was like to visit the exhibit, set amid the destruction on Misrata’s Tripoli Street: “Inside there are hundreds of portraits of Libyans who were killed. When I walked through, looking through these portraits for the dates they were killed, suddenly I stopped. On the left side there were two portraits of Tim and Chris.”

Misrata’s residents are keen never to forget the details of this horrific point in their history. Indeed, everywhere we traveled in Libya, we found similar efforts to immortalize the names and faces of those lost; and the tragic events that transpired. But all along Tripoli Street, there is also rebirth, and there is hope. New billboards and storefronts have sprung up from the city’s ashes. Uniformed traffic cops in white gloves patrol intersections—despite the absence of a fully functioning central government. And construction workers in orange vests clear rubble and tend to new flowers in the grassy medians. Stores selling wedding dresses and school supplies have re-opened their ground floor display windows; even as the gaping holes caused by rockets and tank shells remain to be fixed just above. “There are a lot of signs of war but you can see that there is life,” Yuri says. “There is life in different ways, girls on the street, boys on motorbikes, and flower shops.”

“At the same time I didn’t want to do any kind of investigation [into Tim and Chris’ deaths], to try to understand what happened,” he says. “It happened. It happened last year, and I remember it, and that’s it. I was not in the mood yet to try to understand. I know that’s the street. I know that’s the place.”

Abigail Hauslohner is TIME’s Cairo correspondent.

Yuri Kozyrev is a contract photographer for TIME and was named the 2011 Photographer of the Year in the Pictures of the Year International competition.

The Gallery as Public Square: ‘Almost Dawn in Libya’

The photographer André Liohn, who got an early start on covering the civil war in Libya and stayed in the country through the killing of Muammar Gaddafi, was recently asked not to use that term—civil war—to describe the conflict. Liohn had returned to Libya to introduce a project that he started with seven other photographers who covered the war-torn African nation last year. They call the project Almost Dawn in Libya, and through it they plan to exhibit their photographs of the war in the Libyan cities of Tripoli, Misurata, Benghazi and Zintan. But as Liohn was telling a young lawyer who had been active in promoting the revolution on the internet about their work, the photographer was confronted about his choice of words.

He responded that what he had seen seemed to fit his own conception of a civil war, but she told him that, to her, the conflict didn’t fit that category. “That you can come to us and challenge this concept that we have of it—that’s exactly what the project is for,” Liohn says.

The photographers behind Almost Dawn in Libya—also known as ADIL, an acronym that sounds like the Arabic word for justice—aim to use their work to help Libyans come to grips with what happened there in the past year, to turn galleries into spaces for public debate. They are not the first to think about what would happen if those who might appear in war photography got to see those pictures. Susan Sontag described in On Photography the way that a photographer can seize control of a narrative and Susan Meiselas’ In History examined the ethics of conflict photography in Central America in the 1970s and ‘80s. But, says Liohn, there’s a new factor in play these days.

“The Libyan revolution or the Arab spring, it’s probably the first time where victims of a violence were able to document their own suffering. Mobile phones, videos, graphic design have been extremely important to unify people. They did it through images,” he says. “But today the images that they created have lost the context of the violence.” Liohn says that, without that context, the images that were once a rallying cry have become a source of fragmentation: each city has its own images of how brave its people were or how much they suffered. By showing the same exhibit of 100 pictures, not sorted geographically or chronologically, in four different places at the exact same time, the ADIL team hopes that Libyans will be able to start a dialogue that is not divided by city.

And Liohn says that, through ADIL, the photographers involved will cede their control of the images. “We are not showing it to a public that never saw Libya,” he says. “We are actually exposing ourselves to the public.” Part of the project involves bringing the photographers back to speak to that public and hold workshops, though, so Liohn says that hearing dissent about the way Libya is portrayed is part of the point. The larger point, however, is that the people who see the exhibits may then be inspired to discuss the country’s direction.

“The people there are waking up from this kind of dream-nightmare situation,” says Liohn, “and no one actually knows how the day is going to be.”

Learn more about Almost Dawn in Libya—and the photographers involved (André Liohn, Lynsey Addario, Eric Bouvet, Bryan Denton, Christopher Morris, Jehad Nga, Finbarr O’Reilly and Paolo Pellegrin) at their emphas.is fundraising page here

In Memoriam: Rémi Ochlik, 1983 – 2012

Rémi Ochlik, an award-winning French photojournalist, was just 29 when he died on Feb. 22, when government forces shelled a building where a growing number of foreign journalists were covering the battle in Homs, Syria. Ochlik died alongside Marie Colvin, an American who was one of Britain’s most honored combat reporters. Two other journalists were reportedly wounded in the barrage.

For Ochlik the horror in Syria came as he was just beginning his career. He was with his friend Lucas Dolego, a French photographer, on the streets of Tunis during the revolution there in January 2011 when Dolego was hit and killed by a police teargas canister. “We had come to work, so I kept on working,” he said in a recent interview, after being honored for his Arab Spring photos. “As a little boy I always wanted to become an archeologist, for the travels, the adventures,” he continued. That changed when his grandfather gave him his first camera.

Lucas Dolega—Polaris

Oct. 23, 2011. French photojournalist Remi Ochlik in Misrata, Libya. Ochlik was killed Feb. 22, 2012, by Syrian shelling of the opposition stronghold Homs.

In 2004, Ochlik traveled to Haiti and photographed the fall of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, winning the Francois Chalais Award for Young Reporters. He started his own agency, IP3 press, which specialized in combat photography, he covered the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2008 and he returned to Haiti for a cholera epidemic in 2010. In 2011, Ochlik covered the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya; his work in Libya won him first prize in the General News category of the World Press Photo contest. One of the World Press judges said that his submission told a complete story.

“The idea was not to focus on just one part of the story,” Ochlik told the British Journal of Photography. “Because when you look at what happened, this war was divided in several parts—in Benghazi, in Misrata—and in what I’ve covered, I’ve tried to tell a story.”

Ochlik’s own story took him to Syria merely a week before he was killed. His and Colvin’s deaths came the same week that Anthony Shadid, a renowned foreign correspondent, died of an apparent asthma attack while sneaking out of the country where he had been reporting. Despite his young age, Ochlik understood the risks in his chosen profession. In describing his work in Haiti when he was only 20 years old, he said, “I could sense the danger, but it was where I always dreamt to be, in the action.” His being there allowed the world to witness horrifying atrocities, but it ended the life of a gifted storyteller when his own adventure had barely begun.

Lynsey Addario on NPR

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Photograph courtesy Lynsey Addario/VII network. Featured in Aperture issue 201.

Click here to hear photojournalist Lynsey Addario’s account of being captured, along with three others, by Libyan rebels in March. Addario was interviewed by Morning Edition co-host Renee Montagne, and she relates how they were taken by Moammar Gadhafi’s soldiers after retreating from rebel fire at a checkpoint near Benghazi. They were released on March 21 after several days of abuse and threats to their lives. Lynsey Addario: At War, a selection of images focused on women soldiers in Afghanistan, was featured in Aperture magazine issue 201.

michael christopher brown – libya

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Michael Christopher Brown

Libya

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LIBYA
Since arriving ten days ago, I have tried to understand the situation here in Libya. People swap facts, predictions and rumors, the news feeds me information, but the complexity of the conflict makes it impossible to fully comprehend. Once a picture is taken or a word is written it is already old news. There seems to be no way to catch up, as the database of history is filed before it is processed. And as a result I have become more confused. But I can attest to one reality, shown in these photographs. They form a loose record of my experience during the war in Libya.

CAIRO TO BENGHAZI (FIRST JOURNAL ENTRY)
Around midnight we piled into a tiny car and drove for 7 hours, from Cairo to the eastern border of Libya. A wide eyed nicely dressed Egyptian city man, our driver with slick black greasy hair, persuaded military officer after officer standing beside tanks that he had foreigners and therefore special privilege to pierce the curfew barriers and drive west, as if in a high-speed chase on empty highways, past the beautiful night city of Cairo and into a deep desert countryside as cigarette smoke escaped out the window. Somewhere sometime we passed the pyramids, not too longer after a pit stop with a McDonald’s and a shopkeeper selling ‘StarFuck’ ashtrays shaped as green coffee cups. The jetlagged dreams of 3 packed in a backseat took us elsewhere as the sun rose over the Mediterranean just beyond the sand dunes. The barren desert, looking left to nowhere looking right to the sea. The towns were simple shacks and here and there and rare were men in long robes without faces standing still. Wearing white robes and black robes, with camels near the sandy highway.

Would Libya be different? Would it be a different world? Something told us so. Something would be there for us. Danger, excitement, importance, freedom, death. Perhaps all. Smoking cigarettes. We arrived beyond Salloum where lines of trucks and cars waited for those leaving Libya. Arms in the air, Egyptians and Chinese and Indonesians crossing to somewhere safe. We moving in the opposite direction, elated. Then more journalists, then some we knew. On the other side more people piled up. A hall full of Indonesians, laying about as if dead so I exchanged my Egyptian money with their Libyan, using a rate in their favor and losing $100 in the process. Something to do. Then we walked the 1000 yards or so to the Libyan gate, guarded by men in plainclothes and rebels.

A man in dark sunglasses glanced suspiciously at us. They inspected our passports, we filled out a quick form and walked to Libya, to a road bordered on both sides by tall cement walls. Two Libyans of about 25 offered to take us to their hometown of Benghazi. We jumped into the van, looking a lot like my Jinbei in China. The concrete walls, looking like blast walls, surrounded trucks and cars wedged together in a narrow dusty strip with men wrapped in scarves holding automatics and eying the interior of our ride suspiciously. They were young men, these rebels, with old men in the background watching. No uniforms, like bandits, they were among the opposition who had recently wrested eastern Libya from Gaddafi. They nodded heads with our driver, who sped up, then sped up again, passing cars and whizzing past a littered landscape of wrecked automobiles and buildings and into an emptier desert than Egypt’s.

Faster faster our driver outsped his buddies in the other van, and his eyes faster than anything existing in the desert that day or anytime before. His eyes beyond the horizon, beyond what was happening in the country. All the fighting could not reach the (what was it in his eyes?) it in his eyes. A few windy turns but not many, the highway whisked through abandoned (after coming from china everything looked abandoned) tiny sand towns with few buildings, all small and plain and square or rectangular against the pastel landscape. But mostly phone lines, empty phone lines carrying messages to the west and we were messengers to the west. Driving faster now our drivers eyes not leaving the road. Faulty communication. I know little Arabic and him the word ‘smoking.’ One stop at a road café we ate tuna sandwiches and photographed a man and his gun. Our drivers buddies caught up and we raced each other down the road, the landscape turning from sand to rock then greenery. It began to rain. We made Benghazi by nightfall and arrived at the African hotel. The first night spent in a real bed in Africa, with dirty sheets and one cockroach.


Bio

Raised in Washington State, Michael moved to New York and began working as a freelance photographer in 2006. His clients include GEO, Time, National Geographic Magazine, Smithsonian, Fortune, The Atlantic and ESPN The Magazine, among others.


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Michael Christopher Brown