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“I sometimes think that being photographed by a clicking still camera is infinitely more satisfying to me than shifting about for a whirring moving one,” wrote Tilda Swinton for LightBox in early December. The Academy Award winner was describing her experience being photographed by Peter Hapak in September for TIME, a shoot that yielded images both delicate and intense — not unlike the actor herself.

Finding essence in a single image is a challenge, yet somehow our photographers manage to do it again and again. This year was no exception, as portraits of celebrities, political powerhouses and survivors filled our pages. While each shot displayed the talent of our skilled photographers, TIME’s photo department narrowed the field to select our favorite portraits of the year. From the poised conviction of Aung San Suu Kyi (captured by Platon) to the grief and defiance of Cindy Sheehan, an antiwar activist and the mother of deceased Iraq soldier Casey Sheehan (captured by Marco Grob), to the delighted exuberance of 15-year-old Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld (captured by Hapak), 2011’s best shots spoke volumes about their subjects in the way only portraits can.

After all, as Tilda noted when recounting her luminous shoot, “Still portraits operate their own code.”
—Megan Gibson

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This week I had the pleasure of seeing the Academy Award nominated documentary "Wasteland" and meeting its director Lucy Walker. The film follows the Brazilian photographer Vik Muniz as he sets out to create a body of work rendering portraits of the garbage pickers of Rio's Jardim Gramacho - the largest landfill in the world - out of the garbage they sift through every day. The idea was that all the money Muniz made from the sale of these pictures would be given back to the pickers and their union. However it also turned out to be a shining example of how doing the right thing can bring as much to the giver as the receiver.

For those not familiar with Muniz's work, it is largely comprised of renditions of iconic images done in unusual material like chocolate syrup or paint swatches and then photographed by the artist. You can see a lot on Muniz's own site here.

Following the unusual, dangerous, and daunting project, Walker focuses on a handful of Muniz's truly memorable subjects and by the time the film is over you not only feel you've gotten to know them, but you care deeply about them. Subtextually, the film also addresses the often complicated issue of what makes something a work of art in a refreshingly clear-headed way. It's moving, entertaining, and illuminating. It's playing here and there, but obviously if the film gets an Oscar it will be easier to access.

Whatever happens, don't miss it.

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