With lockdown over, Sebastian Barros’ joyful portraits capture British teens reconnecting over football

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“There are certain things that unify us, culturally. Football is one of them.” To coincide with Portrait of Britain 2021, Barros – who was shortlisted for the award last year – discusses his collaboration with education charity Football Beyond Borders

Culminating in the nation’s biggest annual photography exhibition, Portrait of Britain is an award capturing the many faces of modern Britain. Enter now.

“There are certain things that unify us, culturally,” says photographer Sebastian Barros. “Football is one of them.”

In the wake of England’s narrow defeat in the UEFA European Football Championship, “loss” feels a far cry from what defined that cultural moment. Rather, the tournament shone a light on a new generation of British footballers who are using their platforms to incite change: fighting for the disadvantaged; standing against racism; challenging politicians. 

This understanding of football as a force for change lies at the heart of UK-based education and social inclusion charity, Football Beyond Borders (FBB). Namely, they help disadvantaged young people who are passionate about football, but disengaged from school, finish their education with the grades and skills they need to transition into adulthood. It is well known that children from poorer backgrounds are less likely to do well at school. FBB compounds trained practitioners drawn directly from the communities they work in – teachers, youth therapists and football coaches – to support them in taking control of their futures.

© Sebastian Barros.
© Sebastian Barros.

Barros’ collaboration with FBB, What’s Good?, is a series of warming portraits shot over six weeks as the world reopened following the UK’s third national lockdown. Set both on and off the pitch, the images capture young friends across the charity’s programs reuniting: boys and girls hugging, laughing and messing around; their joy and excitement at reconnecting with one another palpable under Barros’ soft and playful gaze. 

“Every friendship has a unique way of reaffirming itself,” says Barros. The magic of his photographs lie in their intimate renderings of that spectrum: some bonds are tactile and exaggerated, led by fist bumps and giant grins; others are quiet and understated, found in the simple comfort of another’s presence. “This has been a year of confrontation,” says Barros. “A lot of people are shouting. I think I wanted to remind people of the nuances of conversation and the subtleties of body language; how that can create energy, too.”

© Sebastian Barros.
© Sebastian Barros.

“This has been a year of confrontation. A lot of people are shouting. I think I wanted to remind people of the nuances of conversation and the subtleties of body language; how that can create energy, too”

Young people, for whom socialising is everything, have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. For those who were already struggling – falling behind at school; going hungry at home – their problems were severely exacerbated. Children whose parents are out of work are less likely to have access to resources that help them learn from home, such as computers, apps and tutors. Foodbank charity the Trussell Trust reported a 95 percent increase in food parcels given to households with children in April 2020, compared with April 2019. Largely thanks to Manchester United and England player Marcus Rashford, such instances of child food poverty have been forced into the public eye. To inspire their participants, FBB points to Rashford, and other players like him, as an example of channeling one’s frustrations into constructive change, instead of giving up, or checking out.

Accompanying Barros’ images are quotes from the teenagers themselves about what they missed in their time apart. “I missed always having someone to talk to; asking about their day and just having a small conversation,” says Arya, 15. “I missed the worldies we used to score over the park,” says Fernando, 15. Turaine, also 15, missed “the banter we could share and the good energy that surrounded us. It goes to show that friends are an important part of a happy life.”

“The work FBB does with kids is incredible,” says Barros. “You can see the positive impact their programs have had on kids’ mental health and self-esteem. I just wish we had them at my school when I was growing up.”

© Sebastian Barros.
© Sebastian Barros.
© Sebastian Barros.
Flossie Skelton

Flossie Skelton joined British Journal of Photography in 2019, where she is currently Commissioning Editor across awards, Studio and partner content. She does freelance writing, editing and campaign work across arts, culture and feminism; she has worked with BBC Arts, Belfast Photo Festival and Time’s Up. She is also an illustrator, with artwork published in Marie Claire, ES Magazine, Sunday Times Style and the Guardian.