In Charlie Kwai’s winning Portrait of Humanity image, a young child stands drinking milk from a bottle, seemingly stunned by the camera, and dressed in a Captain America costume. The photograph was taken in Mexico City in 2016, just a few days after Donald Trump won the presidential election in the US.
“To see a Mexican boy dressed as Captain America seemed ironic,” Kwai explains. “At the time, and since, the rhetoric from the US administration has been extremely negative towards Mexicans.” The image is typical of Kwai’s work. Up close and severe, it embodies the beliefs at the heart of his practice; that “a picture exists to create discussion.”
Kwai has long-established himself as a confrontational street photographer, but he insists this is not the case, and that while the proximity between himself and his subject can often appear intrusive, it in fact reflects their intimacy. Starting out shooting on the streets of London, Kwai has since taken his high-flash, up-close approach to portraiture elsewhere, specifically Mexico. Basing himself in the country’s capital, his work documents how deep-rooted cultural beliefs and traditions are manifested in contemporary Mexican culture.
The resulting series and book, Sweet Dreams, juxtaposes the old with the new. One image is a still life, comprising religious iconography and plastic coke bottles bearing the names Consuelo and Gloria, with rotten fruit and fresh bread strewn in the forefront. As in his winning Portrait of Humanity image, often the juxtaposition is between Mexico and the US, at the moment of Trump’s inauguration. “My winning portrait embodies what it means to exist in a globally fragile moment-in-time,” says Kwai.