Bodies of water have the tendency to take on a life of their own. When a photographer arrives to document life on beaches, lakes, seas and rivers, they often end up as humble guests with little to no control as to how the event would conclude. Even on the calmest day, these places are imbued with life and movement that you can never fully capture.
Jeremy Snell is a New York-based photographer and cinematographer originally from Hawaii. For the greater part of his childhood, he spent his time living with his parents throughout Asia where he “started using photography during this time as a means for me to explore my surroundings,” he tells It’s Nice that. “Holding a camera gave me the confidence to interact with people I didn’t know which also taught me a lot about non-verbal communication.”
After experimenting with the medium in school, playing with strobes and lights with his friends, Jeremy was ultimately drawn towards portraiture which hints at backstories of the sitters, with the photographer never being in full control of the outcome. “Telling stories of culture and populations not often seen around the world is my greatest desire in photography,” he says. “My hope is that viewers begin to ask new questions and have new perspectives.”
For his latest project, Boys of Volta, Jeremy produces a series of photographs of local children set against the backdrop of Lake Volta, the world’s largest man-made lake stretching across south Ghana. The lake is formed by the Akosombo dam, encompassing an area that used to be large forests and hillsides. Jeremy first made a trip to photograph a campaign against the trafficking of minors in areas surrounding the lake with non-profit organisation International Justice Mission, before embarking on a project of his own.
This otherworldly quality of the lake is reflected front and centre in Boys of Volta. In the series, the lake glows blue and orange in certain images, before turning teal and pink in others. The boys sit submerged, sometimes covered in fishing nets that extend their silhouette, always with a meditative expression. They traverse the vast body of water on wooden boats. In every image, the horizon looms in the distance, creating a sense of vastness that serves as a counterpoint to the deeply intimate portraits.
“Once I arrived I was profoundly affected by the beauty and the character of the lake,” Jeremy recalls now. “3000 miles of dammed water encompass what used to be large forests and hillsides, so the trunks and tips of thousands of trees can be seen as you drift through its waters. There were massive thunderstorms in the afternoons that would light up the vastness of the lake and strike awe into all those who were on it. Even midday on the lake seemed to have a certain eeriness that accompanied the heat and the floating trees.”
For Jeremy, creating trust between himself and the children was key in photographing them. He focused on creating a sense of security and respect with the kids, especially since they spent hours together on the lake waiting for the right moment for a photograph. “For me, the photographs point to the beauty of the lake and those who live on it, the complexity of life in the area, and the treacherous situations some of these kids find themselves in,” he explains. “Many of the photographs are of actual fisher boys who work on the lake full time, but some were of child actors who lived by the Lake that we got permission to photograph.”
The planning for each trip took weeks. Jeremy developed moodboards and studied photographs of the region, looking to capture a cinematic portrait of the people that lived by Lake Volta. Leaning into using shadows to create this ambience, complementing this tool of obfuscation to emphasise the emotions through light and the eyes of the people he photographed. With the shadows enveloping their bodies, the relationship between the children and the lake is established.
Now released as a publication with Setanta books, “I’m incredibly excited to be publishing my first photobook and to share this series in the physical form,” Jeremy says. The understated turbulence in Boys of Volta shows an interior world that is inseparable from the material reality. Though cinematic in technique, a natural depth is felt in the images through the expression and the gestures of the children as they face the lake. “The photographs point to the beauty of the lake and those who live on it, the complexity of life in the area and the treacherous situations that some of these kids find themselves in,” the photographer concludes.
Jeremy Snell: Boys of Volta, courtesy of Open Doors Gallery (Copyright © Jeremy Snell 2020)
About the Author
Alif joined It's Nice That as an editorial assistant from September to December 2019 after completing an MA in Digital Media at Goldsmiths, University of London. His writing often looks at the impact of art and technology on society.