Another year over, a new one about to begin. What better time to remember the visual stories from 2016 that reminded us humanity is a beautiful, complicated mess?
From a ballet program in Kenya to the real-life mermaids of Korea, the fearless LGBTQ youth of Jamaica to a married couple dealing with depression in the U.S., the best subjects from this year were better captured in pictures than words. With that sentiment in mind, here are the photo projects we discovered, adored and shared this year:
These photos of the ballet program bringing strength to one of Africa’s biggest slums
Fredrik Lerneryd spent a year and a half photographing ballet dancers in the Kibera neighborhood of Nairobi.
This series that took us inside the last generation of Haenyo, Korea’s real-life mermaids
“These women divers are carrying on a Korean legacy and will be the last of their kind,” photographer Mijoo Kim explained
The photographer who documented what students were wearing when they were sexually assaulted
Photographer Katherine Cambareri challenges the ease with which people resort to victim blaming.
The photographer who chronicled her husband’s depression through intimate portraits
“Where words failed us, the pictures filled in the blanks,” photographer Maureen Drennan explained
The nude photos that celebrated the fact that “big and beautiful” people have love stories, too
“Fat femme” photographer Substantia Jones is the brilliant mind behind The Adipositivity Project.
The photographer who documented early motherhood in unflinching detail
“I hope viewers see their own mother, or all mothers, in a new light,” Anna Ogier-Bloomer explained
The aerial photos that captured just how differently the rich and poor live
Photographer Johnny Miller’s “Unequal Scenes” shows wealth discrepancy from above.
The historic photos that reminded us what the North’s fight for civil rights looked like 50 years ago
A photo of civil rights advocates picketing next to the American Nazi Party put our country’s current politics into sharp relief.
The breathtaking photos that captured Cuba’s legendary ballerinas dancing in the streets
Daniela Fabelo & Daniela Cabrera
Amaal Said’s portraits that shed beautiful light on women of color
Her Instagram account is a celebration of hijabs, lipstick, family and tradition.
The woman who photographed 500 naked men in an attempt to normalize the nude male body
“I want to show that like women, some men have body-image issues due to internalized societal ideals,” Abigail Ekue explained
The series that explored how a 14-year-old sex worker became one of photography’s greatest muses
The love story of photographer Mary Ellen Mark and her muse, Tiny.
The photos that followed 12 couples over three decades in a unique study of aging
Since 1982, Barbara Davatz has documented the changing styles and relations of lovers, friends and siblings.
The raw photo project that asked people to take off their clothes and discuss self-love
Photographer Anastasia Kuba has learned that although body positivity is important, beauty is much more complex.
The visual story of the fearless LGBTQ youth who live in Jamaica’s sewers
Photographer Christo Geoghegan captures the beauty of the self-described Gully Queens.
The rare photos of Marilyn Monroe, taken by the man who fell in love with Norma Jeane Baker
In 1945, Andre de Dienes was the first professional photographer to work with Monroe when she was known simply as Norma Jeane.
The series on poverty that, 30 years later, is as powerful as ever
Eugene Richards’ “Below the Line” shatters the cliché imagery associated with destitution, daring viewers to look away.
The photos that captured the beauty and grace of the world’s first Muslim hijabi ballerina
Did we mention the fact that she’s only 14 years old?
The daughter who spent seven years documenting her mother’s bipolar disorder in photos
“I hope that I show an honest record of my personal situation with a mentally ill, substance-abusing parent,” photographer Melissa Spitz explained
The project that let viewers watch as Detroit neighborhoods fell into ruin with Google Street View
A few years ago, these were people’s homes.
The photographer who depicted the ways hijab and niqab can empower, protect and emancipate
“I wanted to show another side of wearing the hijab, one that portrays ninja-like qualities; power, grace, beauty,” Yumna Al-Arashi explained
The never-before-published photos that revealed clues Bowie left before his death
How a 1974 image reappeared in Bowie’s final music video
The photos of Nydia Blas, who only makes images of women of color
“I feel as though there is a need for women of color to make images of women of color where we can literally see ourselves,” Nydia Blas explained
The series that took us inside “Africa’s Little Rome,” an eerie city where time stands still
Artist Eli Durst talks photographing a former fascist utopia.
The all-girls photo collective that celebrates womens’ bodies, unedited
“At first it might be shocking, but then through exposure it becomes normal,” Ashley Armitage explained
The biracial artist who dared us to define her through performative self-portraits
“My experience as a person of color is different than others’. I have something to say,” Shulamit Nazarian explained
The trans/trans couple that collected intimate photos of their life together
Photos of Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst chronicle the small ways couples connect.
Damon Dahlen, who explored the bedrooms of NYC’s emerging ballerinas
Take a peek at where dancers live across Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and New Jersey.