A great portrait captures the very essence of its subject, and this year, TIME continued its long legacy of storytelling with a number of compelling photographs. Search Engine Optimization . linkwheel creation . 2012 saw newsmakers in several categories and countries, so we sent photographers around the world to capture them as they made their mark. In Turkey, Peter Hapak photographed several Syrian families who had sought refuge in the country after fleeing their homeland to escape the brutality of Assad’s regime; in Iowa, Martin Schoeller captured Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas as the young gymnast trained both in the gym and at home; and in Israel, Marco Grob photographed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, in 2012, proved that his influence is not only large, but lasting. Their portraits and the rest in this gallery are visual testaments to the diverse and colorful personalities who made 2012 memorable; herewith, a look at TIME’s best commissioned portraits this year.
Imagine for a moment hurtling down a roadway as fast as your legs could carry you—all the while blindfolded. Sound scary? Henry Wanyoike does it every day, along the dirt roads around his Kenyan village and on the speedy tracks of Olympic stadiums. Wanyoike, 38, has won three gold medals in three Paralympics—his first in the 5000m at Sydney in 2000—setting two world records for a blind runner in the process. This year in London, he is aiming to medal in his first Paralympic marathon.
The fact that Wanyoike runs at such intense speeds while totally blind is truly remarkable, a testament to both his raw athletic talent and iron guts. I know that from personal experience. I, too, am losing my sight, due to a genetic condition called retinitis pigmentosa. There is no treatment or cure, no way of slowing the descent into blindness. Today, I still see much better than Wanyoike, but I can barely find my way at night or down a crowded street. As I visited Wanyoike in his village outside of the town of Kikuyu, I joined him for a stretch of a morning run. The weather was terrible. A cold rain fell on the unpaved roads, turning them into cauldrons of mud. My sight doesn’t allow me to spot potholes or other potential ankle-twisters, and the raindrops splattering my eyeglasses made that task even more difficult. I struggled to keep my footing. Yet Wanyoike ran beside me, unfazed and sure-footed. He can’t run alone, of course. He is joined by a guide, Joseph Kibunja, who acts as his eyes.
Wanyoike didn’t always have such confidence. As a young man, he seemed headed for a promising career as part of Kenya’s famed running teams, until disaster struck in May 1995. At only 20 years old, Wanyoike went suddenly blind, due to a stroke. Unable to care for himself, let alone run, he became despondent, even suicidal. “I was thinking that was the end of me,” he says. “My dream would never come true.”
Yet it did. After several years, with the help of encouraging teachers and doctors, Wanyoike learned to run again with the aid of a guide. Now he participates in races from Hong Kong to Hamburg, an inspiration not only to disabled people in Kenya, but also to the poor children of his home region of Kikuyu as well. Wanyoike still lives near to where he was born, humbly in little more than an upgraded shack. Though he wishes he could see his wife and children at least once, Wanyoike doesn’t look backwards, to the life he had when he was sighted. “For 17 years, since I lost my sight, I think I have done so many (more) things than what I did for 21 years before,” Wanyoike says. “The most important thing is to accept yourself.”
I’d like to say I found Wanyoike and his life story inspiring, especially since I am facing a similar fate. He is an inspiration, of course, to anyone dealing with disability or adversity. But what struck me most is how differently Wanyoike and I have approached our condition. Wanyoike has come to accept what has happened to him, and has gained strength from that acceptance. I, however, strive to overcome my failing sight by stubbornly refusing to accept the problem exists. My visit with Wanyoike made me wonder if his way is better.
Read more about Henry Wanyoike at TIME.com.
Dominic Nahr, a TIME contract photographer, is represented by Magnum.
Michael Schuman writes about Asia and global economic issues as a correspondent for TIME in Beijing.
When Chinese scouts set out to recruit athletes for their national women’s weight-lifting team in the late 1990s, they had specific criteria in mind. Calculated research had given them the perfect profile: stoic, quick, powerful and, of course, strong. By 2000, China had one of the most powerful teams in the world, and today, China’s female weight lifters are expected to dominate their competition in London.
(For daily coverage of the 2012 Games, visit TIME’s Olympics blog.)
In May, TIME sent contract photographer James Nachtwey to Beijing to photograph the national women’s weight-lifting team as it prepared for London. The photographs document the making of elite athletes in a country that has quickly become an Olympic powerhouse, earning the most gold medals of any nation in 2008’s Beijing Games.
Nachtwey’s images put faces to China’s supercharged athletic program. Photographed from behind, the arms, legs and shoulders of one team member look as solid as the massive weights she holds, with seemingly little effort, in her calloused hands. In another, Wang Mingjuan, a tiny woman at just 48 kg (106 lb.), lifts a burden that looks as if it would easily stump amateur weight lifters twice her size.
To explain China’s success in the sport, the national team’s coach Xu Jingfa offers a simple explanation: “We do everything together, and we work harder than everyone else.”
That hard work includes six-day weeks of all-day training. The 30 members of the national team wake together at 6:30 a.m. and begin a marathon schedule of exercise, physical therapy and classes that range from weight-lifting techniques to “ideological education.” Weight lifting has consumed their lives since they began training at age 10 or 11. In London, it will become clear just how much this dedication will pay off for China’s strongest women.
Read more about China’s Olympic athletes at TIME.com.
James Nachtwey is a TIME contract photographer who has covered Sept. 11 and the 2011 Japanese tsunami, among other topics, for the magazine. He was awarded the 2012 Dresden Peace Prize.
Although she is one of the youngest athletes set to compete in this summer’s Olympic games, 15-year-old Carolina Mendoza displays a maturity beyond her years through her training. In early June, TIME commissioned photographer Tomas Munita to photograph Mendoza as she prepared to represent Mexico in the 10-m platform dive in London—one of the only remaining Olympic sports permitting teenage competitors as young as 14.
(For daily coverage of the 2012 Games, visit TIME’s Olympics blog)
Munita, who photographed Mendoza at the National High-Performance Center (CNAR) in Mexico City, was drawn to his subject’s balanced approach to her training. At an age where many kids face distractions from friends, family and school, Mendoza has found a rare balance in the frenzy of her life.
“Her happiness and professionalism completely explains her success,” he said. “She is not just tough practicing over and over again, but she also loves what she does as a challenge and a game—not just as pure competition.”
Mendoza seems perfectly suited for the rigors of the Olympics. Learning to walk at 9 months old and swimming by age 2, she was encouraged athletically by her parents: her mother, a Mexican national track-and-field champion and her father, an Olympic cyclist competing at the 1968 Mexico City Games.
At age 11, Mendoza discovered that her experience in both swimming and gymnastics found harmony in diving. And now, four years later, she is packing for the London Games.
Munita watched in awe as Mendoza dove again and again during practice. “She works every detail systematically and patiently. In between each dive, she finds time to joke and laugh loudly with her partners,” he said. “Then, suddenly, she’s running up the ladders again.”
Read more about Carolina Mendoza on TIME.com.
Tomas Munita is a freelance photographer based in Santiago, Chile. He previously photographed Church and State: The Role of Religion in Cuba for TIME.