This Photographer Shares Rarely-Told Stories, Infused With Empathy

Last week, Jeremy Snell described his most recent trip to me. He spoke about the grueling physical conditions at 1,500 feet underground — in the coal mines of Pakistan. These mines are hand-dug and have little infrastructure for protection. The miners were adorned in their day clothing, chiseling away at the rock in pitch darkness.

“It haunts me a little bit.” Snell said. “It’s just a sobering thing.”

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Coal miner in Northern Pakistan. #shotoniphone

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Snell grew up in Beijing, China, traveling with his parents in East Asia and Africa. Before the age of 5, he’d spent time in Thailand, Singapore, and Uganda. Traveling is deeply ingrained in him, eventually delivering him to his mother’s home of Hawaii, where he studied film. His studies and passions have led him to work with such organizations as Charity: Water, Daughters Rising and more.

The now 25-year old photographer, filmmaker, and humanitarian spoke with me while he was in his home of Honolulu between the project in Pakistan and another in Nepal. We shared stories about our times in Africa, our struggles with balancing freelance work and his mission as a photographer of often stigmatized cultures.

What type of photography did you find yourself gravitating toward when your interest in photography and film began?

I experimented with all kinds of photography. I did some fashion, and I did some commercial shoots with agencies. I think for me, nothing really stuck. I saw a lot of other photographers doing the exact same thing, and I just kind of wanted to be different. I generally just didn’t like shooting things that just kind of like felt fake to me. So I think even just when I was shooting things here in Honolulu, I would wander the streets and photograph the homeless people and get to know their stories.

I think, even through just those photographs, that I would post on my and people’s stories, nonprofits started contacting me and talking to me.

I don’t know if I’m just catching you during a busy time, but you sound like you’re all over the place.

Yeah. The last three to four years have been pretty nonstop. I would say I’m gone on average, based on the last three years, probably seven to eight months out of the year.

How do you find a work-life balance when you have this kind of schedule? Or do you have any bits of advice for anybody that might be in a similar situation?

I’ll let you know when I figure that out. [laughs] It’s definitely challenging. I think my biggest thing is prioritizing what’s most important to you.

I do see a lot of poverty in the world. And it is a hard balance to go back to life and initially when I first started doing this kind of work, it was really hard for me to go back and forth between, some would say, the most luxurious life and then the worst kind.

Nowadays it’s a little bit easier just because I feel like once you have more balance in your life, you kind of understand that there’s a place for both of these things in the world. You don’t have to feel sorry for yourself and your own hard things in your life are still hard. You shouldn’t downplay that, but I think it’s about using your own opportunity and your own position in life to help other people. And tell those stories. And I think that’s what I’m trying to do: use the global platform that I have to tell these stories that other people aren’t telling.

When do you find yourself being most fulfilled with your photography?

I think there’s a lot of jobs where I just kind of get to wander around the village. We’ll be in the middle of nowhere in like Ethiopia or India, and I’m just by myself. I’ve left the team. I’m by myself. I have my light and my cameras, and I’m just wandering around, and I get to experience just what it is at the core. And those are the moments where I get to interact with people, sit down, have coffee with them and their families and just photograph them in an intimate, real way. Oftentimes I don’t have a translator with me. I’ll just be non-verbally making a fool of myself.

I feel like I’m telling a story that I can’t even imagine another photographer telling. It’s a very new story that hasn’t been told before.

Why exactly do you choose to shoot so many portraits?

If you look at it, it’s mostly portraiture because, to me, you can capture so much more emotion through someone’s face. That’s what I’m going for. I want to be affected emotionally.

I want to give a perspective that’s my own, I want to give something like how I see the world when I travel. And to be honest, when I travel I’m just most interested in people’s eyes and to see how they interact with you.

You said you’re asked all the time about how you get people comfortable in front of the camera.

The honest truth is, they are not always comfortable. Usually they are really awkward, and I’m just sitting there with my camera. I think it’s not necessarily about getting them super comfortable with you, it’s getting a split second of, “Oh they let their guard down for a second.” I try to wait for that one moment, and I think it’s just patience waiting for that one moment.

Everything is capturing the humanity of a person. But it’s the process of just going up to like a random stranger and introducing yourself and asking to photograph them. People get anxiety about talking to strangers, and for some reason, I love it.

Where are some of the places your photography has taken you? Where has been the best?

Nepal and India are always like special to me, but I think the best experience is just getting access. I think photography and film making in general, it’s a unique field because you get to interact in so many different ways. In ways that tourists would not be able to interact with the community or culture.

So I think those kind of experiences for me, those are always, like, “Wow.” I’ve got to pinch myself a little bit, and be like, “I get to experience this.” I think it changes my own worldview too. The times that I am just kind of at home where life seems hard to me, I can at least have more perspective about the world.

What do you want to accomplish with your photography?

Seeing the world through this lens, through someone else, who’s living their life, I think that, for me, that’s the goal; to continuously be introduced into new perspectives. Always be finding new ways to see the world. There are so many people out there in this world, and I think, especially in culture and media now, I feel like it’s kind of a flat point of view with like American culture. And I’m a part of that, I ascribe to that for sure. But I think there are so many different ways to seeing the world. It’s very one directional right now.

I want to push a message that’s different, something that when someone looks up one of my photographs, it forces them to look at the world differently.

Why do you think that it is especially important to show people this different perspective right now?

I think right now people have this fear of the other. The fear of what they don’t know and what they’re not familiar with. We all have fears of what’s different from us. And my hope with my work is just to bridge that gap a little bit, because once people see the humanity in people that are different from them, once they see the humanity in all people and kind are able to understand the daily lives of everyone around the world, I think that’ll help bridge some of that tension a little bit.

I just feel like if people really understood what’s below the surface, if people understood that everyone’s lives are fundamentally the same . People are all fundamentally the same beneath their skin color, beneath their culture, they still love, they still have pain, they still want to experience joy, have children. We are all fundamentally the same. I think once people understand that and can see a glimpse of people’s daily lives, it will help change things.

Especially now, in this political climate, I think stories are more important than ever. Just because I think they have more power. You can inspire people to help bring change.

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The brick maker #journeywithijm

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Smiles in Sokone

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