Bravery and resilience: Portrait of Britain Volume 5 winners

Image © Caitlin Chescoe, Portrait of Britain Vol.5 Winner.

From a north London cowboy, football fans and climate protesters to familiar faces such as Grayson Perry and David Attenborough, the 99 winning photographs act as vignettes of modern Britain

The 99 winning images of Portrait of Britain Vol 5 provide a snapshot of a frenzied year. Designed to illustrate the diversity of life in modern Britain, the award invites us to reflect on the multiplicity of voices and stories across the country, forming a precious historical record of British life. The 99 winning portraits will be exhibited in a digital exhibition in partnership with JCDecaux, alongside a hardback book featuring 200 shortlisted images, published by Hoxton Mini Press. From a north London cowboy and a Scottish football fan to familiar faces such as Grayson Perry and David Attenborough, the photographs act as vignettes of Britain, taking viewers on a ride across generations, geographies and genders.

Portrait of Britain returns for its sixth edition, with the winning images selected by a panel of jurors compiled from professionals in the photography industry. Among them is the chair of Southbank Centre and Nigerian-born photographer Misan Harriman. He believes that what unites the winning photographs is their ability to honestly capture the “human condition”. “All the winning images have an unfiltered observation of the human condition from a very British point of view,” he says. “The judging criteria that I loved the most was bravery and intimacy, both from the subjects and the photographer, to create a great portrait.”

© Elainea Emmott, Portrait of Britain Vol.5 Winner.

Protests swept the country in 2022 – in response to the war in Ukraine, the cost-of-living crisis and climate change, to name but a few – and a number of the winning images depict these demonstrations. Elainea Emmott, for example, documented a peaceful protest attended by thousands calling for justice for Chris Kaba, a young, unarmed Black man shot dead by police in September. Her moving portrait, Saying Goodbye, depicts Kaba’s relative and his friend in a tight embrace. “A family member was talking on a makeshift stage trying to make himself heard and when he came off, his friends rallied around to support and hold him,” explains Emmott. “I touched his hand as I often do when I get close with my camera and took the picture.” 

Shot in black-and-white, the poignant image almost encourages the viewer to shoulder some of the sorrow that emanates from the pair. “I hope I can use my creativity to move emotions and instil compassion when the newspapers move on to the next story and justice is still being fought for,” reflects Emmott. As the threat of a new law that would restrict protests looms in the UK, images like Emmott’s are all the more affecting.

© Kois Miah, Portrait of Britain Vol.5 Winner.
© Jonathan Straight, Portrait of Britain Vol.5 Winner.

Elsewhere, photographers shine a light on minority and migrant groups in the UK, to an ode to Plymouth’s queer community to dancers at a West Indian carnival in Leeds. Kois Miah’s winning portrait, which pictures Ahbab Hussain and Afia Begum outside their ground-floor flat in east London, is part of the series Brick Lane: A Community Portrait. “The series tells the stories of British Bangladeshis emanating from the street [Brick Lane in London], which became the heart of a fledgling community in the 1960s, capturing narratives of the migration journey and how it shaped the lives, the sense of belonging and experiences of making the East End it’s home.”

According to Miah, the photo touches on a wider narrative that resonates with migrants around the country. “This image represents the ethnic and cultural diversity of Britain today,” he asserts. Dressed in a traditional pink saree and smart blazer respectively, the couple are positioned proudly in front of their homegrown khodu [pumpkin] and tomato plants. “Planting herbs and vegetables was a way of keeping a connection to rural Sylhet, where they both hail from,” says Miah, illustrating how the image serves as a reminder of collective heritage and shared histories.

© Alun Callender, Portrait of Britain Vol.5 Winner.
© Michael Leckie, Portrait of Britain Vol.5 Winner.

Portrait of Britain judges praised images like Miah’s for their recognition of community spirit. Hoxton Mini Press’ Martin Usborne says that they serve as a tool for understanding the very fabric of our society. “What does it mean to live together in Britain?” asks Usborne. “Invariably the stories and pictures in the book are about connection – about the hope in humanity… People come away with a sense of not only knowing these individuals but that these individuals make up a society that can overcome our joint challenges.”

Heritage and tradition are common themes underpinning several other winning works, including Alun Callender’s portrait of designer Zandra Rhodes. Taken at Gainsborough, one of the few remaining silk mills, in Sudbury, Suffolk, the image pays homage to Britain’s industrial past and its shaping of new generations. “I hope my image fuses the heritage and traditions of Britain with that of a contemporary idea of our nation,” says Callender. “The image celebrates Zandra as a fashion and design icon, as well as recognising the vital role that the crafts, makers and manufacturing have had on shaping our nation, as well as helping to promote those skills and the products that are still made by skilled craftspeople here in Britain.”

© Simon Murphy, Portrait of Britain Vol.5 Winner.
© Nico Froehlich, Portrait of Britain Vol.5 Winner.

From 09 January, Callender’s image will join 98 other winning portraits in the UK’s biggest annual photography exhibition – a month-long digital screen display in partnership with JCDecaux. “We are delighted to bring this powerful exhibition to a national audience,” says Mark Bucknell, chief commercial officer at JCDecaux UK. “We hope people are inspired by and even see themselves in the breadth of people that are featured in this initiative.” 

For many of the photographers, the exhibition is a chance to introduce their work to a new audience, and to be included in a piece of history. Portrait of Britain has come to represent a historical snapshot of the country – what winning photographer Kois Miah describes as “an annual photographic census of the British people”.

With special thanks to our judges: Martin Usbourne, Sian Siân Addicott, Renee Mussai, Misan Harriman and Sabina Jaskot-Gill

Alice Finney

Alice Finney is the design reporter at Dezeen. A graduate of the Central School of Ballet and Sussex University, she specialises in writing about dance, design and popular culture. She has written for titles including SLEEK Magazine, INDIE Magazine, Mixmag, gal-dem, HuffPost UK, and Dezeen.