One of the first questions we're asked when we publish our annual European Heroes special issue is, How did you decide who's a hero? It's not an easy question to answer, since there are almost as many types of heroism as there are heroes. There are, for example, those who devote much of their adult lives to a single cause; people like Geneviève Jurgensen, who's campaigned for decades against drunk and reckless driving in France. Then there's the spontaneous heroism of ordinary folks responding to extraordinary circumstances; those like tube driver Jeff Porter, who helped rescue his passengers after the July 7 London bombings, or Asma-Maria Andraos, a key organizer of March's pro-democracy demonstrations in Lebanon. And then there are celebrities like rock musician Bob Geldof and footballer Thierry Henry who harness their fame to a good cause.
The quality all TIME's Heroes share, however, is that they are passionately and persistently engaged in doing the right thing. And when someone has that kind of drive and dedication, you just can't miss it. Our correspondent in Warsaw, Tadeusz Kucharski, spotted it in Adam Wajrak, a Polish journalist and environmental activist. "I became fascinated by Wajrak's colorful stories about nursing wounded storks back to health and trying to save dying wolves caught in snares laid down by poachers," Kucharski says. "Then I discovered that in addition to writing about Polish wildlife, he was actually campaigning to save it. And that, to me, was heroic."
Some of this year's Heroes came as a surprise. Few of us in London had heard of Herbert Grönemeyer until our Berlin bureau suggested him for this year's special report. Grönemeyer is Germany's biggest-selling rock star and a veteran campaigner for Africa, the environment and racial tolerance. He's also, in the words of reporter Theunis Bates, who wrote his profile, "that truly rare thing: a humble rock star." Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Grönemeyer doesn't surround himself with a doting entourage, and doesn't dodge questions. But he does have a clear vision of what a modest hero like himself can do. "I think of artists as drummers," he says. "We walk in front of the army and drum up support, but we're not fighting. The people who really deserve credit are the ones who work on these campaigns every day."
There are plenty of those kinds of people here, too. Just ask Julius Domoney, the picture editor responsible for the stunning portraits in the issue. Perhaps our most elusive Hero was Finnish pediatrician Leena Kaartinen. We had assumed she was in Finland, but just a few days before deadline discovered that she was in a remote part of Afghanistan no one knew her exact location where she teaches local women how to become health workers. Domoney mobilized his contacts in Afghanistan and within 48 hours tracked Kaartinen down in Kabul, where she was photographed in a vegetable market.
Domoney made a special effort to encourage our camera-shy subjects, many of whom would prefer to remain anonymous, to revisit the places that brought out the best in them. Jeff Porter was photographed in the London Underground; Asma-Maria Andraos in Beirut's Martyrs' Square; and Natalya Dmitruk, a Ukrainian signer for the deaf who became a symbol of the country's orange revolution, in Kiev's Independence Square. "One of the joys of planning photography for the Heroes issue is the diversity of people and locations involved," Domoney says. "This year it stretched from Kabul to Kiev, Beirut to Chelyabinsk, Stockholm to Unawatuna beach, Sri Lanka. The portraits are a small way to recognize our Heroes as individuals, a kind of tribute."
Tribute is also due to TIME's own heroes, the reporters, writers and researchers across Europe, the Middle East and Africa who helped create this issue. Associate editor Charlotte Greensit Reid magnificently managed our writing and reporting efforts across the region, and senior associate art director Yvonne McCrimmon devised the issue's sharp, elegant design. For Jim Ledbetter, the senior editor who masterminded the project, the best part was the addition of a new category: Rebel. "I like this category because not all heroes are necessarily role models at all times," he says. "Sometimes, small rules need to be broken to illuminate larger truths. One of the things you notice about our Heroes is that they don't let authority stand in their way." We trust readers will enjoy meeting TIME's rebels with a cause.