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Sometimes words just aren’t enough. We realize that’s a bold statement for a news magazine to make. After all, words are our currency. Yet we know that there are times when, to fully tell the stories that need to be shared, we need more than words.

This year it was as evident as ever. From the tsunami in Japan, to the war in Afghanistan, to the Arab Spring, our reporters, columnists and correspondents worked tirelessly to bring you the stories that matter. But beyond the words and interviews that filled our pages, our photojournalists sought out the pictures that told a deeper story. Whether they were behind the political scene like Diana Walker as she photographed Hillary Clinton aboard a military plane or risking life and limb like Yuri Kozyrev as he captured the conflict of Libya’s revolution, TIME’s dedicated photographers brought the stories to life.

In March, acclaimed TIME contract photographer James Nachtwey traveled to Japan to capture images in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami. A veteran photojournalist, even he found himself at a loss for words when trying to describe the country’s devastation. Yet in his hauntingly bleak images of ravaged towns and wounded families, we glimpsed what language failed to convey — and it was heart breaking.

TIME‘s words offer the important facts, clear-eyed insights and sharp analysis needed to understand the story. Our photojournalism offers the chance to not only see, but also feel the story. —Megan Gibson

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The year 2011 brought us dramatic and unexpected images from some of the world’s major news events, including the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan, the violent end of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s rule and the humiliating tweet that ruined New York Representative Anthony Weiner’s career. But beyond the widely seen and iconic images that accompanied the year’s biggest events, like the death of Osama bin Laden and the shooting of Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords, were unusual, equally astonishing and startling images that rested at the periphery of the news. A cat with two faces, rail tracks buckled by the shifting earth after a quake in New Zealand, the police rescue of a girl held hostage by her father, a suicidal bride and beautiful, abstract images taken from space by an astronaut photographer — these are just a few of the compelling and surprising images to have emerged beyond the main news cycle this year. Here, LightBox looks back at a small selection of the underreported, improbable and astounding images that caught the attention of TIME’s photo editors.

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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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Libya didn’t simply fall at the end; it rather slid from the hands that had gripped onto it for far too long. It was taken back and returned to its rightful owners.

In the six months before my second return to Libya this September, after the fall of Tripoli, I had seen the way things would finally end through a romantic kaleidoscope. I wanted to celebrate in the square after finding my family in the crowd. I wanted to be my father’s son. I wanted that gap I have felt from Libya my entire life to at once close. With this uprooting of the regime in Libya, I felt whatever huge hole was left was now filled with a complex melody of emotions. I had not expected anything short of jubilation, and never had the impulse of reflection been a part of this plan for me. Before I had a chance to acknowledge the transition, it was already complete and it gave way to an incredible sense of pride. The rebels had brought the regime to the ledge, but it was the people who would be the final push.

At the time, the city celebrated but the country seemed exhausted. I had been afraid of the capital spiraling into chaos following the fall, but instead everything seemed to have taken its place. People went to work and took up positions to help attend to the city’s wounds—as if all Libyans had been rehearsing for this moment their entire lives. People grasped their roles at this moment and took hold of the importance of civility. During a visit to a hospital one day, a man explained to me simply, “We all have our jobs now. As a Libyan, you have your job here, and it is important. You do your job and I’ll do mine.”

I felt as though I needed that clear point of departure to help finally tether together these loose ends I had felt my entire life. In the end, all those emotions I had reserved for that anticipated moment were nowhere to be found. A kind of paralysis took hold instead. The previous expectations would pale in comparison to how this unexpected state would leave me. Joy was replaced with anger and clarity with haze. What became clear was that this hadn’t been my war as much as it had been for the rest of Libya.

To me, the regime was like an ominous vapor. While their fighters were not visible on the streets any longer, evidence of their lethal effect was very present, and as they fled, they left in their tracks a deep gash in the country and its people.

The personal conflict I felt during this time brought me to a point where my relation to breaking news played less an immediate role in my work than trying to restore my connection during a period when so much was unclear and surreal. Memories near and far rushed forward and I felt I needed to step back before the whole thing engulfed me. I had a clear reason for being there. More than one, in fact, and I wanted to get a hold of whatever I was experiencing and work towards a clearer picture. That image only became focused once I paused and allowed that nostalgia to catch up with me. It was an unconscious choice to proceed forward only when something made sense to me and I felt it somehow fit into this puzzle I was building. I realized that a middle distance was missing. The gap between me and what I was here to see was gone and I felt pushed up against this giant shift. I was able to see everything clearly. I needed that minor space to objectify this moment just enough to try and grasp it but I was immediately enveloped instead. As if all the oxygen in that needed breathing room was extinguished and a vacuum pulled everything from inside of me.

Much of what I became transfixed with might otherwise have seemed banal to some though it had a relevant place in processing this event. Whether it was the discarded green flags of the regime being slowly devoured by the elements, or the simplest gesture that suggested a great relief within this new absence in the country.

While the experience of this past return lent little to fully realizing how I had expected things to play out, everything in fact eventually did play out. The insignificance of those dreams had never been so clear once seeing and feeling the collective sigh of relief the country let out.

Jehad Nga is a Libyan photographer who lives in New York. See more of his work here.

To read Nga’s piece about his father’s life in 1960′s Libya, before the Gaddafi regime, click here

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On April 5, 2011, South African freelance photographer Anton Hammerl disappeared while covering the revolution in eastern Libya. For weeks his family, and the world, held out hope that he was alive, believing he had been captured by the Gaddafi regime. Then on May 19, Hammerl’s family discovered through eyewitness accounts that he could not have survived injuries he sustained while photographing a battle between rebels and Libyan soldiers.

Unai Aranzadi

Anton Hammerl at work in Brega, Libya.

Last week, a fundraising website, Friends of Anton, was launched in an effort to raise money for Hammerl’s family. Renowned photographers, including João Silva, David Burnett, Kenneth Jarecke, Bruno Stevens, Yunghi Kim, and Todd Heisler, have donated prints in support of their fallen colleague. The photographs can be purchased through the Friends of Anton website.

Hammerl, 41, a former picture editor and photographer for The Saturday Star in Johannesburg, South Africa, is survived by his wife Penny and their three children: Aurora, 11; Neo, 7; and 6-month-old Hiro.

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