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Animals have found themselves in the path of peril and at the heart the some of the biggest news stories over the past twelve months, from the Japanese tsunami and Bangkok floods to the war in Libya and the droughts in Africa. While some animals have been sent into the danger zone, the majority of these creatures have simply had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, victims of circumstance, and at the mercy of nature’s wrath or man’s violent feuds.

When U.S. special-forces stormed a compound and killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the story behind the story was that of the anonymous four-legged member of the eighty-strong team: a bulletproof vest-wearing K-9 military working dog that had taken part in the raid. Elsewhere, the mascot dogs of the Athens protests—Kanellos, Louk and Loukanikos, or”Sausage”—have been photographed countless times amid the protests. The subject of the online world’s attention, the canines have a dedicated Facebook and Wikipage, and are featured in numerous YouTube videos.

The average animal doesn’t make headlines, but countless creatures have been photographed amid the chaos and destruction so widely connected to some of the year’s biggest stories. Here, LightBox looks back on a few furry friends who’ve found themselves in harm’s way in 2011.

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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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Though he’s spent over a decade photographing at-risk landscapes, some of the most unique topography photographer David Zimmerman has seen is found in the folds of fabric.

Zimmerman, a landscape photographer based in New Mexico and New York, began his project Last Refuge, in which he photographed piles of clothing and remains from an off-the-grid community, almost by chance. As the economy took its toll on broad swaths of American life, Zimmerman increasingly saw groups of people who had either lost their jobs or houses, and were, as the photographer describes, “increasingly desperate to survive.” These aren’t drifters who might be expected to live a transient lifestyle, he says, but teachers, firefighters, musicians and other blue and white-collar professionals.

Though sleeping on out-of-the-way dirt roads and parking lots is nothing new for Zimmerman—he’s lived and worked out of his camper truck while on the road, throughout 15 years of making images—the increasing number of people doing the same thing caught his attention. ”It really startled me, to be honest with you,” Zimmerman says, despite having read countless stories of similar communities who were often functioning without electricity or running water. “It didn’t sink in entirely what [was] going on out there, until I saw it for myself.”

As Zimmerman spent time talking to and even photographing members of these marginalized communities throughout the American southwest, it wasn’t their portraits or their poverty that resonated with him in a visual sense. Rather, it was their clothing. ”Whether it’s [being] homeless, or lacking a car,” Zimmerman says, “the clothes end up being the very last thing that you and I and they will own. When it absolutely becomes desperate, that’s the final thing that we will own.”

And so the piles of leather jackets, sweaters and coats—found at a 20-person community in northwestern New Mexico—form a descriptive landscape of their own. The entire series is actually shot on the roof of one man’s house, a retired firefighter in his seventies that came to live out in the desert about 25 years ago. He built his shelter underground, and used abandoned clothing to insulate the “roof” of the structure which now litters the desert floor.

Isolated from their surroundings as well as their former owners, the images of clothing are stark reminders of life on a subsistence level, and seem to encapsulate the difficult trajectory of the lives of their owners in their tattered seams and frayed edges. So what began during trips to photograph the natural landscape morphed into a project spent documenting its human counterpart—“the human aspect of the landscape is just as important for me as the physical landscape itself,” Zimmerman says. Last Refuge becomes a sort of typology of different textiles representing a human “dilemma,” as the photographer calls it, as well as a visually isolated reminder of what’s left to lose. ”That’s how it spoke to me, as opposed to just being about one person,” Zimmerman adds. “It was a very big problem, a nationwide problem.”

Last Refuge is on display at Sous Les Etoiles Gallery in New York from Dec. 8-Jan. 28.

David Zimmerman was recently shortlisted for the Terry O’Neill Tag Award, and won the Sony World Photography Awards L’Iris D’or Grand Prize in 2009. More of his work can be seen here.

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