Restless creativity and urgent storytelling: The uncanny documentary portraiture of Jeremy Snell

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“There are always smaller tales, ” says Snell, whose surreal and restless portraiture is rooted in street photography. To coincide with Portrait of Humanity 2022, Snell  – who was among the single image winners in 2020 – discusses his practice.

Family portrait of Humanity is a global portraiture prize capturing the many faces associated with humanity. Enter now .

Throughout his living, photographer and cinematographer Jeremy Snell has thrived upon knowledge, new encounters plus perspectives to shape his creative identity. Based in Brooklyn but raised in Hong Kong, Snell describes himself as an ingredient Chinese, Hawaiian, English, A language like german and Scandinavian. By their mid-teens Snell had accumulated a travelogue of more than 20 countries. Curious associated with cultures that were not his own, taking photographs was “a way to interact with the tradition around me without speaking the language, ” he points out. He was drawn to the exoticism and unfamiliarity associated with foreign streets, where roaming around with a point-and-shoot digital camera, he was attracted by “the emotion of the human face, ” he says. This particular instinct for portraiture provided him a Portrait of Humanity award in 2020 , for an image from his project, Boys of Volta . Though his personal projects are poised between skin flick and fine art, and everything from landscapes to still lifes falls within his gaze, he reveals, “it is certainly portraits that stand out to me the most”.

Boys of Volta © Jeremy Snell, courtesy of Open Doors Gallery.

Boys of Volta © Jeremy Snell, thanks to Open Doors Gallery.

While photography had been Snell’s “first [and enduring] passion”, it was whenever he moved to Hawaii (his mother’s country of origin) to study film that cinematography became his mainstay. Their process comprises countless stylistic considerations – from lighting, narrative to direction – all informed by a schooling in film. The two mediums “go hand in hand” – from Snell’s affinity pertaining to using strobe lighting to shaping a narrative, “like a storyboard”. He provides: “The more you research light, the better you can repeat it. ” Yet, even though many practitioners are hooked on the collaborative thrill of movie, Snell finds solace in the pared-back practice of photography. He considers it a more “refined” route to “implement [his] vision towards a more intentional way”.  

Snell’s aesthetic is otherworldly, charming and intoxicating. His influences range from the work of US professional photographer Steve McCurry to Hk director Wong Kar-wai plus YouTube tutorials. It is regarding “taking reality and which makes it surreal”, uncovering real-world topics and steeping them in a “magical quality”, Snell explains. As he puts it: “They seem better than real life. ”

Boys of Volta © Jeremy Snell, courtesy of Open Doors Photo gallery.

© Jeremy Snell.

However , the act of ameliorating the truth is not without complexity. Snell insists that the immediate attraction of his images should be underscored with “a much deeper story”. His acclaimed Boys of Volta project, from 2020, illuminated the plight of Ghanaian fisher-boys, while his 2019 series, Pilgrims , pictures a vast collecting at Kumbh Mela festival in Allahabad, India. Snell’s true raison d’etre is certainly humble: to reconjure the quotidian, witnessed through close conversation and long-term connection with his subjects. “There are smaller stories, ” he admits that.  

Snell regards the editing process as one of “growing, revisiting, and being amazed by what you’ve learned”. He admits he still hasn’t found “one camera or one perfect tool”, which he is “always open to diverging from any plan”. More profoundly, he is conscientious regarding his role as a west outsider in many of the locations he visits –  from photographing the Fulani group of Niger, to the Adi Etot community in north Ethiopia – often upon assignment with international NGOs. The thorniness of the concern has never felt more severe for Snell than in the final 18 months, a period he identifies as “transformative” for his stance on his practice; “I don’t want to be voyeuristic, ” he stresses. Instead, his long-term vision is to develop a practice in collaboration along with local photographers in remote control places, “learning” from each of their individual perspectives. “It’s important to capture a place with fresh eyes, ” Snell explains, “but only so long as it’s not stifling people through that place being able to inform their own stories. ” 

Children of Volta © Jeremy Snell, courtesy of Open Doorways Gallery.

Boys of Volta © Jeremy Snell, courtesy of Open Doors Gallery.

Snell’s investigative urgency, searing visual expression and soul-searching ethic places him at the most electrifying end of contemporary photography. It is a photographic journey which – to use their own words – will simply become “following the light”.  

Louise Long

Louise Long is a London-based photographer and writer with a focus on culture and traveling. Her work has been published in Wallpaper*, CEREAL, Uk Vogue and Conde Nast Traveller amongst others. She is furthermore the founder of Linseed Journal, an independent publication discovering culture and local identification.

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