Sometimes a story sticks, urging you to look at it from different perspectives. In 2017, Jeremy Snell traveled on assignment to Ghana with the nonprofit organization International Justice Mission to work with a creative team telling the stories of people affected by child trafficking and child labor in and around Lake Volta. From this body of work, he created a personal edit entitled Boys of Volta, which earlier this year was chosen as a special Juror’s Pick for our 2020 Portrait Awards by Caroline Hunter, Picture Editor for The Guardian Weekend Magazine.
Snell explains, “While on the lake, we came across countless boats mostly filled with children, many as young as six. Some of the boys who are forced to fish on the lake must wake up at 4am to set nets and are not allowed to go to school. The beauty of Lake Volta juxtaposed with this harsh reality was quite sobering for me.”
Spanning across half of Ghana, Lake Volta is the largest human-made lake in the world. Due in part to the complex economic and social history of the region, child trafficking and child labor is an issue here. Because of their small hands, which are useful for untangling nets from the many trees and shrubs under the lake’s murky water, young children are targeted for this work.
Boys of Volta feels less like photojournalism and much like a collection of cinematic stills from a narrative film. This may be because Snell, who works as both a photographer and a cinematographer, is more interested in storytelling by constructing scenes than straight documentation.
Snell explains, “For ethical reasons, I did not photograph the trafficked children. Instead, I worked with other kids who live in the area. They were willing to volunteer their time and have their parents sign releases because they support anti-trafficking work. As a result, we were able to stage scenes on the water and tell this story differently.” Drawn together in a book recently published by Setanta Books, Boys of Volta unfolds a sombre story against the backdrop of the lake, accompanied by an essay written by Ghanian poet and writer Nii Ayikwei Parkes. A portion of the book’s proceeds are donated to the NGO International Justice Mission.
In response to Boys of Volta, Portrait Awards Juror Caroline Hunter wrote, “I was instantly captivated by Jeremy Snell’s sparse, hypnotic images of young Ghanaians fishing in a lake. We are well used to stereotypical images of Africa, but the approach here is different. While the photographs are seemingly beautiful, the mood of solitude and loneliness is overwhelming. The photographs appear richly cinematic while at the same time reminding us that, for some, there is no happy ending.”