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The Best Photo Essays Of 2017

Genetically modified creatures. Torturous beauty devices. The vaults that will save us from the apocalypse.

The Best Photo Essays Of 2017

Photography gives us a window into another world. Sometimes it’s one far from home—like refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan, or even images captured and curated through Google Street View. Other times, it shows us the rituals of daily life and the interior worlds we thought we knew, from how people get to work to how they eat dinner every night. At its best, photography forces viewers to consider something they hadn’t before, even if it’s something as mundane as how people get to work each day. Here are the most inspiring, thought-provoking photo essays of 2017. 

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What People Do On Their Way To Work

What do you do on your commute? Over the course of nearly a decade, the photographer Peter Funch captured the lives of dozens of New Yorkers as they exited Grand Central Station. The images in Funch’s new book 42nd and Vanderbilt shows people doing exactly the same things on their commute—smoking a cigarette, sipping a Starbucks, listening to music—over months, and sometimes years.

The Dreary Monotony Of Hotel Rooms

Hotel rooms the world over look depressingly similar. While traveling to 32 different countries, the photographer Roger Eberhard documented the monotonous interiors of his Hilton hotel rooms, pairing them with an image of the view out the window for a new book called Standard. “I wanted to explore the question of why do we travel the world and stay in a place that looks same everywhere we go?” he says. “What does that say about us as creatures of habit?”

Peeking Inside Famous Architects’ Offices

What better way to get a sense of architects than to see the spaces they work in? The photographer Marc Goodwin let us snoop around the offices of firms like MAD Architects, Renzo Piano Building Workshop, Zaha Hadid Associates, and Foster + Partners, and more,  revealing some intriguing similarities and differences. 

The Photos Instagram Won’t Let You See

Instagram is the world’s biggest photo gallery, and it’s easy to forget that there are censor algorithms monitoring everything you post. The book Pics or It Didn’t Happen captures the photographs Instagram won’t let you see.

Inside America’s Most Beautiful Libraries

The first public library in the U.S. opened in 1790, and in the centuries that followed, the library has become a cornerstone of American public life. A photo series by Thomas R. Schiff documents libraries from across the country, from the stately old libraries on the East Coast to more modern, contemporary buildings by famous architects. 

The Refugee Crisis, Told Through Camera Phones

Professional photographers aren’t always the best ones to document the changing world. That’s something photographer Alex John Beck recognized when he traveled to refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan to photograph the Syrian refugee crisis. Instead, he realized that the images refugees had on their phones were much more powerful. For his series Syrian Refugees in Lebanon & Jordan, Beck places these images side by side with his own portrait of the person who took them.

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When Museumgoers Match The Art

The photographer Stefan Draschan didn’t go to museums to look at the art. He went to look at people looking at art—and take pictures of those who somehow match the works they’re looking at

The Desks Of Top Creative People

The definition of work has changed—but one photographer found that the desks of top creatives are strikingly traditional. In a photography installation called DeskTop, photographer Anton Rodriguez and editor Jonathan Openshaw displayed images of designers and architects’ desks, which are often populated with tools of the trade and meaningful knickknacks.

2017’s Torturous Beautification Devices

In a photo series called Beauty Warriors by Evija Laivina, beautification devices are depicted as they truly are: instruments of torture. Laivina’s stoic models wear  eyelid trainers, face-slimming masks, and suction lip plumpers—all in the name of beauty.

Inside The World’s Richest Company Suburb

In Dhahran, children join the Boy Scouts, play baseball, and wear blue jeans to school. But this isn’t just any suburb. It’s the world’s richest company town, a planned community for the employees of the Saudi Arabia oil company Aramco. A photo series by one of its residents displays a town that could be right out to 1950s America.

Illustrating The Most Unusual Laws

The U.S. has some wacky laws: in Michigan for instance, it is illegal to paint a sparrow in the colors of a parakeet and then sell the bird for profit. In her book I Fought the Law,  photographer Olivia Locher illustrated bizarre laws from all 50 states.

Documenting Dinner In The U.S.

Do you eat dinner at a dining table, or in front of the TV? The photographer Lois Bielefield’s series documents people’s typical weeknight dining habits in about 80 homes, inviting herself over for dinner to catch a glimpse people’s daily rituals. She found that the supposed American ideal, of a family sitting down at a table, all eating the same thing, is usually far from the truth.

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How The Agoraphobic Traveler Sees The World

Jacqui Kenny has agoraphobia—she suffers severe anxiety in unfamiliar environments. So she “travels” via Google Street View and publishes her adventures on Instagram.

California’s Ghost City

Seventy miles east of Bakersfield, California, is a veritable ghost town. Called California City, the place’s physical size make it the third largest city in the state—but only 14,000 people live there. The rest of the place was planned but never developed. Photographer Noritaka Minami’s aerial images of California City reveal the ghost of a metropolis that might have been.

The Biohackers Who Walk Among Us

Cyborgs—beings who are mixes of human and machine—already walk among us. The photographer David Vintiner documents people who’ve replaced lost limbs with prosthetics or who are looking for other ways to enhance their abilities in his series Transhuman.

Inside The World’s Seed Vaults

When the apocalypse comes, humanity has a backup plan: seed vaults. These fortress-like institutions hidden away in remote places around the world house vast numbers of seeds within their walls, like insurance for a day when all of the world’s biodiversity might need to be replanted. Photographer Dornith Doherty’s book Archiving Eden documents 16 seed banks that hold what might one day be humans’ best hope for survival.

An Atlas Of Genetically Modified Creatures

Did you know that goldfish were man-made? They’re just one of a host of genetically modified creatures that humans have concocted. A series by Robert Zhao Renhui documents this artificial engineering, from the Rainbow Star Warrior fish which was dyed bright colors to make it more appealing to customers, to artificial grapes made of gelatin, grape flavor, and food coloring. 

The Disappearing Arctic

When photographer Diana Tuft visited the Arctic in 2015, the place was completely different from when she’d been eight years before, the melting ice a symptom of climate change. In her book Arctic Melt, Tuft documents this shifting landscape, capturing images of a place that may no longer exist in its current from decades from now.  

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Revisiting Le Corbusier’s Indian Utopia

The Le Corbusier-designed Indian city of Chandigarh was meant to be a modernist utopia. Commissioned in 1950 by the country’s first prime minister, the city was designed to be a monument to India’s new independence and represent its vision for the future. Fast forward to 2017, and photographer Shaun Flynn documents the city as it stands today—a far cry from its designers’ hope.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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