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Ideas For Photo Essay Topics

Drag queens pose on covered bridges. Puppies learn to swim. Metal heads cuddle with kittens. Polish witches wave incense sticks.

This is just a sampling of scenes from the best photo essays of 2014. It was hard to choose only 24–runners-up included shots of New York’s extremely well-dressed dogs and very hip, very bearded Sikhs.

These photographs are eye candy, but also so much more: They give you an intimate look at characters you might never otherwise encounter (the biker chicks of Marrakesh), and reveal lifestyles you might not otherwise have known existed (and may wish to remain ignorant of, in the case of the Purity Ball movement in America’s Bible Belt). Some illustrate contemporary social and political issues, while a few just put original spins on the Internet’s bread and butter–cute animal photos. What these photo essays have in common, and what makes them so powerful, is that they all tell stories. None are merely decorative. They serve as a reminder that at its best, photography is a storytelling tool.

Purity Balls: Like A Wedding, Except To Your Dad

It’s a lot like a wedding, except to your dad. At purity balls, a Christian religious ceremony that’s gaining popularity, American girls (some as young as four) vow to their fathers that they’ll remain virgins until marriage. The formal events tend to include dinner, a keynote speech, and ballroom dancing, and the girls get decked out in, um, white gowns. The father, as “High Priest of their home and family,” makes a pledge to protect his daughter’s “purity” during the affair. Often, they exchange purity rings. Stockholm-based photographer David Magnusson captures all this in his book Purity. Over the course of five months, Magnusson traveled to purity balls in Louisiana, Texas, Colorado, and Arizona. On each occasion, he spent an hour interviewing and photographing the father-daughter pair. The poses were up to the subjects themselves, undirected by Magnusson.

Magical Portraits Of Modern-Day Witches

If you ever find yourself feeling nostalgic for your secret middle school Wiccan phase, or if have a friend crush on Hermione (or just enjoy casting the occasional spell), you’ll love Katarzyna Majak’s portraits of modern-day Polish witches. Majak began taking photographs of women on alternative spiritual paths after participating in a “shamanic workshop,” which was part of her personal quest for spirituality beyond her Catholic upbringing in Poland.

Illegal Photos Of London’s Abandoned Underworld, Captured By Daring Place-Hackers

London’s exceptionally clean streets hide a dystopian-looking underworld, blocked off from the vast majority of the public for decades. There are networks of dank hidden sewers, cable conduits, road and utility tunnels, old catacombs, and abandoned train tubes. Now, a daring group of self-identified “place-hackers” is using photography to bring this chthonic region to light, however forbidden their explorations may be. Subterranean London: Cracking the Capital, assembles material from 12 anonymous photographers infatuated with visiting and documenting underground spaces illegally. Featured in the book are shots of the abandoned British Museum tube station, rumored to be haunted by the ghost of an Egyptian pharaoh’s daughter; the ruins of stations destroyed by WWII bombs; and deep-level shelters repurposed as sites for secure document storage.

These Are Photos Of Puppies Learning To Swim. That Is All

In his latest photo series Seth Casteel’s underwater puppies paddle frantically toward the camera, wide-eyed and extra wet-nosed. As young as six weeks and as old as six months, the young pooches follow Casteel’s rubber toys.

Tranquil Scenes Of Life Off-The-Grid

Since 2010, French photographer Antoine Bruy has been traveling throughout Europe, documenting life off the grid for rural farmers, many of whom had left urban lives to subvert the dominant paradigm. Bruy found his subjects through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), a network of organizations that helps people to volunteer on organic farms in exchange for food and accommodation. His series “Scrublands” began in 2010, when Bruy started “WWOOFing,” as it’s known, on an Australian farm.

Tokyo’s Outrageous Street Style

Tokyo is known for its legendary street style, where fashion tribes, from Yamanba to cosplay to Lolita, don elaborate outfits. New York City-based photographer Thomas Card spent the spring of 2012 in Tokyo shooting the capital’s street fashion. More than 130 of his photos were published in a glorious book called Tokyo Adorned.

Metal Heads And Their Cats

“Metal” might not be the first adjective that comes to mind when you think of cats. But that might change after you see the images from photographer Alexandra Crockett’s book, Metal Cats, published by powerHouse Books. It chronicles the deep, dark bonds between fans of heavy, guitar-laden music and their feline companions.

Inside The Offices Of 12 Psychoanalysts

Sometimes an office is just an office. But if you’re a psychoanalyst, the presentation of your work space has to be impeccably thought out, designed to foster a sense of sanctuary and privacy. Since Sigmund Freud’s Victorian consulting room, with its oriental rug-draped couch, analysts have learned to use interior design as a therapeutic tool. In his ongoing series “In the Shadow of Freud’s Couch,” Mark Gerald, who’s both a photographer and a psychoanalyst, offers a look inside the offices of analysts all over the world.

Photos Merge New Hampshire’s Finest Cultural Fixtures: Covered Bridges And Drag Queens

Andre Rosa’s Kickstarter-funded project merges the two things that he feels have the most cultural currency in New Hampshire: covered bridges and drag queens. The software engineer turned calendar publisher, who’s based in Manchester, joked about his light bulb moment last summer to a friend, then realized he was onto something. He decided to create a monthly calendar featuring centerfolds of drag queens in front of covered bridges.

New York’s Changing Storefronts, In Photos

In the early 2000s, photographers James and Karla Murray embarked on a journey to capture the mom-and-pop stores of New York City. Their book, Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York, showed a city that’s quickly fading into memory: one full of local delis, beloved bars, and shops devoted entirely to hosiery. A decade later, they returned to capture what those stores have become in a new project, Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York—10 Years Later. The answer: Subways, Chase bank branches, and Verizon stores.

Surreal Photographs Mix Wes Anderson And Salvador Dali

Photographer Todd Baxter doesn’t try to capture real life in his photos. He’s a narrative artist whose medium happens to be photography. “I have these ideas for a scene—like two kids looking into a glowing hole at night in the woods (“Owl Scouts”) or the aftermath of a burglary with a couple tied up in their living room (“Bound and Gagged”),” he says, “and I try to make them happen.” His photography isn’t photorealistic: It’s staged, slightly off-kilter, and just a bit surreal. He uses a camera, but his work is less photojournalistic than it is painterly.

The Deeply Weird World Of Extreme Dog Grooming

The world of creative canine coiffure is a truly, deeply weird one. Last year, New York City-based photographer Paul Nathan traveled to New Jersey’s Intergroom, a high-profile grooming competition, because of course those exist, and took portraits of pooches clipped and dyed to look like flamingoes, clowns, leopards, and parrots, among other un-dogly things. These freakish glamour shots are compiled in a book, Groomed, from Pelluceo Publishing.

The Biker Chicks Of Marrakesh

You’ve probably never seen a biker gang quite like this. In photographer Hassan Hajjaj’s series “Kesh Angels,” the lady motorcyclists of Marrakesh, Morocco, wear polka-dot abaya and Nike-branded djellaba, posing on their bikes against brightly painted walls. The juxtaposition of traditional Islamic dress with biker-tough posturing and Western branding upends stereotypes of Muslim women as anti-modern and ultra-conservative.

What It’s Like To Be A Ruin-Porn Photographer

Andre Govia describes himself as “addicted to decay.” The U.K.-based urban explorer’s book of photography, Abandoned Planet, is an extensive tribute to that addiction, which has taken Govia and his camera to more than 22 countries over the past 15 years. Govia, who mainly makes his living as a freelance cinematographer for television, elicits a certain ethereal drama from the remains of old manor houses, decrepit prisons, hospitals, and mental institutions, and even indoor swimming complexes far past their prime.

What You’ll Look Like At 100

In our heavily Botoxed culture, it’s rare to see images that present aged skin as beautiful. That’s part of what makes Missouri-based photographer Anastasia Pottinger’s black-and-white photos of people over the age 100, “Centenarians,” so powerful.

Meals Re-Created From 9 Famous Books

When described right, food in literature can be as memorable and enchanting as the characters themselves. For Fictitious Dishes: An Album of Literature’s Most Memorable Meals, designer and writer Dinah Fried re-created 50 famous novelistic feasts and beautifully photographed them.

Danny Lyon’s Unseen Photos Of NYC Subway Riders In The ’60s

In 1966, photographer Danny Lyon returned to his hometown of New York City after spending years documenting the Civil Rights movement in the South and motorcycle gangs in Chicago. Once back in the city, Lyon took his mother’s advice: “If you’re bored, just talk to someone on the subway.” Using a Rolleiflex camera and Kodak color transparency film, he started taking photographs of New York’s commuters and the city’s dingy, fluorescent-lit train stations. Eight of Lyon’s large-scale subway photographs are on view for the first time in Underground: 1966, a show hosted by MTA Arts & Design, at the Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center station in Brooklyn.

Artist Wants To Map Every Single Human Skin Tone On Earth

In April 2012, artist Angelica Dass started a project, called Humanae, to map every human skin tone and match it with a corresponding Pantone color. Dass samples a small pixel from a portrait subject’s skin—usually from the well-lit cheek area—and then matches it to a Pantone hue, which is used as the backdrop. Her photographs for Humanae now number around 2,000, and collectively, they create a stunning spectrum of pink, brown, honey, and taupe (the list goes on)—hues that correspond to all possible skin pigmentations.

Can You Spot The Snipers Hiding In These Photos?

Do you pride yourself on having a good eye? Do you think you notice details others don’t? Well, test yourself by finding the sniper hiding in these deceptively tranquil-looking landscapes. Even for those with a keen eye, spotting snipers is close to impossible, as this photo series by German artist Simon Menner proves. Covered in moss, hiding behind trees, or buried under twigs and branches, these stealth sharpshooters are as good as invisible even when they’re circled in red. The photos are a chilling glimpse into the world of modern warfare: In the military, design is often used not to please the human eye but to deceive it.

14 Portraits Of College Grads Living At Home

Thanks to rising student debts and the weak economy of post-recession America, it’s no longer shameful to move back home after college–it’s a common reality. But that doesn’t make it any easier for young adults to live under their parents’ watch once again. Photographer Damon Casarez captures such adulthoods-on-hold in Boomerang Kids a photographic collection of college grads who moved home. “This project started out of my own struggle to find work and support myself after graduating college with over $100,000 in student loans,” Casarez tells Co.Design. Casarez spent two months traveling to eight states and 16 cities to photograph his subjects.

50 Behind-The-Scenes Photos From Star Wars

These candid backset shots of Return of the Jedi (1983) in production reveal the work and play that went into creating everyone’s favorite galaxy far, far away. It’s a view of Tatooine, Bespin, Endor, and Dagobah from behind the camera.

Intimate Photos Of How People Eat In New York City

Miho Aikawa’s series of intimate photos reveals how, as New Yorkers and Tokyoites sit down for their evening meal, tradition is evolving to fit into the chaos of contemporary life. “Having dinner isn’t just about eating food, or even about nutrition,” Aikawa says. “It reveals so many aspects of our lives, much more than lunch or even breakfast would. And because dinnertime is usually private, it uniquely reveals a part of a person’s lifestyle.”

Photos Of San Francisco Before The Dotcoms Invaded

Before San Francisco was overrun by tech bros, the city was an idyllic, if gritty, melting pot, as photographer Janet Delaney reveals in her book South of the Market. The roots of the tension between blue-collar Bay Area residents and Silicon Valleyites go back decades, though: After moving to San Francisco’s South of Market (SoMa) district in 1978, Delaney witnessed firsthand as her eclectic neighborhood gave way to the then-new Moscone Convention Center (which now hosts Apple and Google events). From 1980 to 1982, she photographed her streets almost every week–until rent grew too high, and she relocated to the Mission District.

Photo Essay Explores The Inner World Of A Trailer Park

San Francisco-based photographer David Waldorf portrays the close-knit community of a Sonoma Valley trailer park. Some residents are migrant workers who harvest grapes in the nearby Sonoma Valley, while others are fixed-income retirees or former drug addicts. Waldorf was careful to develop trust and friendship with his subjects: “I hung out there for years, and people at the park really seemed to love the photos I took,” he says. “One guy even blew his up to the size of a poster to hang on his wall.”

For more excellent photo essays, check out Co.Design’s Exposure series.

As a photographer, you are a storyteller. The nouns are your subject matter; the verbs are the color and contrast that keep the story moving. A cast of characters all working together to get your point across. Instead of proper grammar, you ensure proper exposure. Instead of spelling errors, you watch for tack-sharp focus. For those times when the story is especially important and meaningful, or for when one image doesn’t say it all, there is the photographic essay. With blogging and social media, photo essays are more popular than ever: humorous or emotionally relevant, sparking debate or encouraging compassion, each with a story to tell.

I’ve mentioned before that taking on a photo project is one of my favorite ways to reignite my love for photography, but beyond that, it’s a great way to get your message across and have your work seen by a larger group. A photo essay is intriguing; it’s something to talk about after people hear that you’re a photographer and want to know about the glitz and glamour of it all. It’s the perfect thing to tell them after you’re done going on and on about all of the red carpets, the celebrities, the fame, and the fortune. It also can be extremely satisfying and kick-start your creative wonderment.

By definition, a photographic essay is a set or series of photographs intended to tell a story or evoke emotions. It can be only images, images with captions, or images with full text. In short, it can be almost anything you want it to be. Which is where I struggle most–when the options are limitless. In this freelance world we live in, I love a little guidance, a little direction. Ideally, someone to tell me exactly what they want and promise to be thrilled with whatever I produce, for my fragile artist ego can’t take any less. While I continue my quest for that, I offer you these 5 tips for creating your own, completely without bounds, photographic essay:

1) Let it evolve on its own

Each time I’ve had a very specific concept in mind before I started shooting, it’s never been the end result. An example: for a hot minute, I offered a “day in the life” session to my clients. I was photographing so many of the same clients year after year that I wanted to be able to offer them a different spin on the portrait sessions I was doing for them. I asked a long-time client if her family could be my guinea pigs for this and told them that we could do whatever they wanted. We went out for ice cream, had a mini dance party in their living room, and I photographed a tooth that had been lost that very morning. Then, very last, I photographed the two young daughters with notes they had written, which to be honest, I’m not even sure how they had come about. I rushed home after the session and edited those last note pictures first just because they were so different from what I usually shoot, and posted them on my personal Facebook page the heading Notes Girls Write.

Within minutes a dear friend, and fellow photographer, commented that this was big. Bigger than just the two pictures. She and I would spend the next year working on a photo essay that became a blog, that in turn became a book entitled Notes Girls Write. We photographed hundreds of women of all ages with their notes, each one later expressing having their portrait taken with their own words was an extremely powerful moment for them. Beyond my beautiful children, the fact that I can make a bed with hospital corners like no one’s business, and the award I won in the 4th grade for “Most Patient”, Notes Girls Write is one of my proudest accomplishments. It evolved on its own, starting from a few similar photographs that struck a cord in viewers and becoming a large and powerful project, one of the biggest markers in my career so far.

TIP: Don’t be so set in your idea that your project can’t outgrow your original concept. Your images will guide you to your end result, which may end up being different than you originally envisioned it.

2) If you think there’s something there, there’s likely something there

For the last year I have been a “foster mom” with a dog rescue group. Volunteers transport dogs that would otherwise be put down from overpopulated shelters, or seized from terrible situations, to my area, where dog adoption rates are much higher. These dogs live in foster homes while they receive medical care and basic training so that they can be adopted out to loving homes. It’s incredibly rewarding. Especially when I had hardwood floors.

I knew from the first time I met the transport van I wanted to document what it looked like: a van full of dogs that just narrowly escaped death arriving to temporary homes where they will experience a level of love and care which they’ve likely never known. I tear-up every time I see it. I am also put to work every time I am there, so taking photos while holding onto a 100 pound German Shepard is tough. It’s going to take me several trips to have enough images to do anything with, but that’s fine. I have no idea what I will be doing with these photos. I know they will find a home somewhere: maybe with the rescue group to raise awareness, or to help bring in volunteers, or maybe they will do nothing more than document my own story with volunteering, or perhaps something more. I’m not sure yet, but the point is that I have the images, ready for their time, whenever that is.

TIP: If you think there is something to it, there likely is. Even if it’s just a personal passion project. Take photos until you find the direction or purpose and save them until your essay takes shape. You may not end up using all, or any of the images, but in continuing to take photographs, your project will be defined.

3) Shoot every single thing

I’m the “World’s Worst Over-Shooter”. Need one image? Let me take a hundred so we know we have it. Luckily for my bad habit, the photographic essay needs over shooting. Whether you know what your plan is, or have no idea want your end result will look like, the more coverage you have, the better. This is one of the few times I push my luck and ask my subjects to work for me until they never want to see me again (I only photograph people though, so if you are photographing mountains or something, you have the added advantage of not pushing people until they cry or yell). Don’t be shy. Shoot everything you know you don’t need, just in case you need it. Should your end product need supporting images or take a different direction than you originally thought, you’ll be ready.

Take advantage of digital (if that’s how you shoot) and fill a memory card. You may end up trashing everything, or you may not. I had no idea that my Notes Girls Write project would span for as long as it did, but because I didn’t turn down anyone who was interested in the very beginning I ended up with some shots that told complete stories and expanded on the original concept.

TIP:  Think big. If you are shooting an essay where mountains are your subject matter, see the mountain in pieces and photograph the surrounding trees, rocks, and whatever else. This will save you having to return to the beginning of the project for supporting shots, or having to reshoot if your essay takes a different turn than you planned.

4) Ask for help with image selection

I struggle with this one–I let my personal feelings get involved. Throughout our Notes Girls Write project I was constantly picking images based on my personal feelings–the subjects that I had connected with more, and the girls that I knew were most interested in the project. This is where it is so helpful to have someone else help. Someone who has no personal feelings towards the images and will help you pick based only on the strength of the image and not your own feelings. Even if people were not involved as subjects, you tend to have personal feelings toward images that the general public may not see the power behind.

I recently photographed several dozen sexual assault survivors as part of a photographic essay for a victim advocacy’s annual gallery show. This event is meant to put faces on the survivors and raise awareness, and has been a large local event for years. I was thrilled to be selected to be the exclusive photographer, though this was one of the hardest projects I’ve ever taken on. The photo sessions themselves, whether five minutes or 30, were extremely emotional for the survivors and in the time I spent with them, I often learned a lot about their journey and experience. This made it difficult for me to pick which final images would be used for the show, based only on the power of the image and not my personal feelings. In the end several select friends helped me narrow each survivor’s images down, and the subjects themselves selected which would be the final image used, as ultimately this is their story.

TIP: All creative work is personal, and looking at photographs we take ourselves is incredibly hard to do with clear eyes. We see the mistakes, the personal feelings, the shot that could have been better. It’s impossible to always set these aside so when working on a project that is incredibly important to you, or large in scale. Have others help you decide what images to use for your final pieces. Bring in people who are interested in photography and people that aren’t. People that know about your subject matter and people that don’t understand it at all. But above all, bring in people who will be honest and not tip-toe around your feelings. Lastly, also bring a thick skin.

5) Tell your story, in fact shout it from the rooftops if you can

Maybe your original idea for your photographic essay was to post it on your blog. Awesome, nothing wrong with that, but are you sure it can’t be more? Shop it around, who can it help? Does this benefit a group, an organization, or a person? Could it inspire people? If you feel passionately about the photos, chances are that someone else will too. Your photographic eye doesn’t stop when your shooting is done. If you felt compelled to take the time to create a photographic essay, there are likely “readers” for your story.

TIP: This isn’t the time to be humble. Taking on a photo essay is a large endeavour. While there’s nothing wrong with having it be something you only did for your own personal growth, showing it around can be helpful both in experience and longterm benefit. Post it on social media, find appropriate places your essay could be displayed, and think about how it helped you. Every single photo essay I have done has led to an outstanding connection, or more work, and there is nothing wrong with getting those things along with the personal gain of accomplishing something you’re proud of.

The ideas are truly for a photographic essay are limitless. Truly.

Want a few more ideas for projects, try these?

Have you ever done a photographic essay? What is your experience? Share with in the comments if you have, or have considered it. If you haven’t, what are you waiting for?

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