Shadows and light give form to Snell’s atmospheric images, which nod to both the beauty of the lake and the humanitarian issues that plague it
Lake Volta in Ghana is one of the largest man-made lakes in the world. Spanning 250 miles, it stretches from the Akosombo Dam in the southeast, which generates a substantial portion of the country’s electricity, to the small town of Yapei in the north. Beneath its placid surface stand the skeletons of once dense forests. Worn tree trunks rise up and out of the water; eerie and beautiful at once. Intermittent storms stroke its surface as flashes of lightning tear through the sky, and rumbles of thunder surround it. The water is perpetually warm.
Lake provides a source of tourism and a waterway for transportation, but a large portion of Ghana’s inland freshwater fish is also sourced from it by the multitude of fishing communities surrounding it. The work is arduous, dangerous and often completed by children, many of who are trafficked and enslaved by the industry. Jeremy Snell first visited Lake Volta alongside the NGO International Justice Mission, photographing for their campaign against trafficking minors. Travelling with the NGO allowed him to be immersed in the community. The images he created were distinct and compelled Snell to pursue a project of his own, collaborating with the fisher-boys he encountered. “The images I was coming out with were unlike anything I’d taken before,” he reflects.
The resulting work composes Boys of Volta; an atmospheric book, with an accompanying essay by Ghanian writer and poet, Nii Ayikwei Parkes. which, although Snell does not refer to it explicitly, also references the lake’s darker reality of several thousand trafficked children working in its fishing industry. “I hope to draw attention to this issue without explicitly talking about it,” Snell says. In light of this, 10 per cent of the book’s profits will go to International Justice Mission; an NGO collaborating with partners in the criminal justice system to ensure that law enforcement and prosecutors have the support to create better circumstances for these vulnerable children.
The book itself is arresting, blending fine-art and documentary. Snell is also a cinematographer, and this manifests in his images. “Shadows, more than anything, reveal the light; you can see the light in people’s eyes and their faces,” says Snell. There is a sense of tranquillity but also tension, which runs through the frames; an uneasy quietness. And the effect is amplified by the artificial lighting, which Snell often employed, switching between observational images, and more staged shots, for which he collaborated with his subjects. “I wanted to raise awareness about the humanitarian issues in the area but also celebrate the beauty of the people there,” says Snell.
The boys who populate the frames are majestic, surrounded by the turquoise glow of the lake. But, amid its vast waters, they appear vulnerable, perhaps a reference to the difficult circumstances many fall victim too. The work also resonates beyond its immediate subject matter: “It’s a sense of something deeper,” says Snell. “Mother’s look at [the photographs] and are moved emotionally. It takes them back to that sense of a child emerging from the womb. A sense of beauty and peace, which is what I felt and saw as well.”
Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.