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CONTRASTING COLORS
CONTRASTING COLORS: A physically challenged boy celebrated Holi, the festival of colors, at a school in Mumbai Tuesday. (Rajanish Kakade/Associated Press)

AIR DRYING
AIR DRYING: Clothing hung out to dry on a sunny day at Zhanjiang Normal University in Zhanjiang, Guangdong province, China, Monday. (ChinaFotoPress/Zuma Press)

TV TIME
TV TIME: A worker walked past old televisions at a recycling center in Neijiang, Sichuan province, China, Tuesday. (Jiang Hongjing/Xinhua/Zuma Press)

A SINGULAR FOCUS
A SINGULAR FOCUS: Photographers took pictures at Chanel’s show of ready-to-wear designs during Paris Fashion Week Tuesday. (Thibault Camus/Associated Press)

REMEMBER THE ALAMO
REMEMBER THE ALAMO: Sons of the Republic of Texas gathered at the Alamo in San Antonio, Tuesday. They toasted men who died during the 1836 siege of the Alamo by Mexican Gen. Santa Anna. (Robin Jerstad/Zuma Press)

MASS BURIAL
MASS BURIAL: Men carried coffins of victims, discovered in a mass grave, at a funeral in Benghazi, Libya, Monday. Thousands of people mourned the 155 victims who were killed during Libya’s civil war. (Manu Brabo/Associated Press)

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Spontaneous snapshots. Intimate moments. Unexpected exposures. There was no one formula for this year’s most viral photographs. Most were based on news events, such as the death of longtime Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi—but these photos ended up becoming the news themselves. They shocked us. They awed us. They inspired us to feel. But the most powerful feeling was the impulse to share.

The best viral images of 2011 are those we found flooding our email inboxes and Twitter feeds this year. One thing weaves the images together: each photographer netted a once-in-a-lifetime picture. From Royal Wedding mania and a bloodied despot to an utterly unexpected leopard on the loose, photographers both professional and amateur brought us the scenes of unpredictability and chaos that gripped our world over the past 12 months. As shocking as the subject matter is the simplicity of some images. A few came from mobile phones. Most were snapped without a thought of—or time to handle—composition or lighting. One was even taken by a man who would be dead minutes later.

Given that the Internet is a notoriously fickle beast, it’s impossible to predict which photos will score a hit. Here, LightBox looks back on the photos we couldn’t help but share. —Nick Carbone

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In 2011, Yuri Kozyrev traveled to seven countries covering protests and uprisings for TIME, including Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, Russia, Greece and Tunisia. Here, he writes about the remarkable experience and what all the revolutions had in common.

It’s unique that I’ve been able to cover all these uprisings and revolutions during the year. I’m lucky—it’s incredibly complicated to understand where you need to go when you’re on the ground, and I was lucky to have a lot of help. The protests were well under way when I got to Tahrir Square in late January, and their size and scope took my breath away: in two decades of covering the Middle East, I had never encountered anything like this. There was huge fighting between the pro-government supports and revolutionaries. Some of the journalists were beaten. Some of them lost their cameras. They kicked me out, but I managed to get back in the next morning. I saw a lot of families—not just young men or revolutionaries—and everyone was helping each other, praying together. It was a great time. Everybody was waiting for Mubarak to make the right decision, and suddenly it happened. And it was so emotional: people crying, shouting, screaming…it was incredible. The next morning, it was over. The army was kicking everyone out. They weren’t friendly—there was a feeling of ‘You got what you wanted. Now, get out.’ Of all the revolutions I covered, Egypt was the most special.

The mood at the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain was very different from Tahrir Square. In the first days, I saw men in white robes approach police with flowers, offerings of peace: the response was tear-gas and live rounds. There was a huge difference between this army and the Egyptian army. People from Bahrain—there was no way they could even talk to the army who had arrived from Saudi Arabia. There was no way for me to get to Pearl Square, so a few journalists and I watched what was happening from the hotel. There was one hospital where all the protesters were gathered together. And then the doctors did something incredible. Not all of them supported the protesters, but they gave them shelter at the hospital and saved a lot of lives. I had a chance to go back to Bahrain after they demolished Pearl Square, and again a few weeks ago, and I saw young people who’d lost one eye to rubber bullets. It was just so sad, and I just saw some of them. I know there were many more.

In Yemen, it was very different. There was no Facebook. Change Square was still packed, but the feeling of revolution was more religious, more conservative. There was an invisible border for protesters to stay behind, and the army would shoot anyone who tried to cross this line. I saw so many young people were ready to cross the line, marching to die. And around Change Square, there were hundreds of pictures of people who’d died. In Egypt, I saw protest signs and other things, but in Yemen, it was just pictures of young faces. Whether or not President Saleh will relinquish power, the political crisis in Yemen will likely remain acute, not only because of its tribal culture and topography, but also because of its deep poverty, high illiteracy and birth rates, and deeply entrenched government corruption.

Libya was different because it was more of a civil war than a revolution. It was here that I took one of my favorite pictures of the year. It was taken on the front lines near Ras Lanuf, Libya. It was near an oil refinery factory that was important for both sides—both the rebels and government. I took this picture on March 11, when Gaddafi’s military could still fly, and they were flying around, dropping bombs on the rebels. It was really scary for everybody on the front lines—suddenly, you could hear the plane coming and the bombs hitting their targets. These men were the shabab, young people who weren’t professional fighters and didn’t have weapons or training. They’re not rebels, but eager to be on the front lines. They’re jumping because they heard the planes coming, so they’re running around trying to find any place to hide, which is hard because everything is flat and exposed. You can see from the picture that none of them have any weapons—they were scared—and it was just an incredible experience to be there.

Beyond these main four revolutions, I also traveled to cover the protests in Moscow, Greece and Tunis. I came to the conclusion that each revolution must be assessed in its own context, because each had a distinctive impact. The drama of each revolution unfolded separately. Each had its own heroes, its own crises. Each, therefore, demands its own narrative. In the end, the differences between them may turn out to be more important than their similarities, however. And the common thing about all these protests is the number of young people who really want to bring changes to their country. That’s what’s most incredible. We have a new generation of people who are sick and tired of what’s going on. Call it the Jasmine Revolution, the Arab Spring or the Facebook Revolution, there’s a powerful Sirocco blowing across the world, and young people realize there’s another life and they want to live differently.

Yuri Kozyrev is a contract photographer for TIME who has covered the Arab Spring since January. 

MORE: See the entire 2011 Person of the Year package here

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The month of October has been a dramatic month of deaths, from Steve Jobs of Apple succumbing to cancer to the demise of former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, as well as the dramatic racetrack death of Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon.   But toward the end of the month, life was celebrated with the birth of the seven billionth person on Earth.  Also in the news was the continued and now global growth of the Occupy Wall Street movement, Palestinian prisoner releases for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and a devastating earthquake in Turkey. WARNING: Graphic content.

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Two Red Deer stags ‘rut’ in the early morning mist in Richmond Park on October 15, 2011 in London, England. Autumn sees the start of the ‘Rutting’ season where the large Red Deer stags can be heard roaring and barking in an attempt to attract females known as bucks. The larger males can also be [...]

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