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

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

Portrait of Humanity is a global portraiture award capturing the many faces of humanity. Enter now.

 

Throughout his life, photographer and cinematographer Jeremy Snell has thrived on knowledge, new encounters and perspectives to shape his creative identity. Based in Brooklyn but raised in Beijing, Snell describes himself as part Chinese, Hawaiian, English, German and Scandinavian. By his mid-teens Snell had amassed a travelogue of over 20 countries. Curious of cultures that were not his own, taking photographs was “a way to interact with the culture around me without speaking the language,” he explains. He was drawn to the exoticism and unfamiliarity of foreign streets, where wandering around with a point-and-shoot camera, he was attracted by “the emotion of the human face,” he says. This instinct for portraiture afforded him a Portrait of Humanity award in 2020, for an image from his project, Boys of Volta. Though his personal projects are poised between documentary and fine art, and everything from landscapes to still lifes falls within his gaze, he reveals, “it is portraits that stand out to me the most”.

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

While photography was Snell’s “first [and enduring] passion”, it was when he moved to Hawaii (his mother’s country of origin) to study film that cinematography became his mainstay. His 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 for using strobe lighting to shaping a narrative, “like a storyboard”. He adds: “The more you study light, the better you can recreate it.” Yet, while many practitioners are hooked on the collaborative thrill of film, Snell finds solace in the pared-back practice of photography. He considers it a more “refined” route to “implement [his] vision in a more intentional way”. 

Snell’s aesthetic is otherworldly, enchanting and intoxicating. His influences range from the work of US photographer Steve McCurry to Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai and YouTube tutorials. It is about “taking reality and making it surreal”, uncovering real-world subjects 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 Gallery.
© Jeremy Snell.

However, the act of ameliorating reality is not without complexity. Snell insists that the immediate seduction of his images must be underscored with “a 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 gathering at Kumbh Mela festival in Allahabad, India. Snell’s true raison d’etre is humble: to reconjure the quotidian, witnessed through intimate conversation and long-term connection with his subjects. “There are always smaller stories,” he says. 

Snell regards the editing process as one of “growing, revisiting, and being surprised by what you’ve learned”. He admits he still hasn’t found “one camera or one perfect tool”, and that he is “always open to diverging from any plan”. More profoundly, he is conscientious about his role as a western outsider in many of the places he visits – from photographing the Fulani tribe of Niger, to the Adi Etot community in northern Ethiopia – often on assignment with international NGOs. The thorniness of the issue has never felt more acute for Snell than in the last 18 months, a period he describes 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 with local photographers in remote 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 from that place being able to tell their own stories.” 

Boys of Volta © Jeremy Snell, courtesy of Open Doors 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 voyage which – to use his own words – will simply be “following the light”. 

Louise Long

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