Jeremy Snell: The Photographer of Your Dreams (Literally)
Thanks to the internet and social media, we live in an age where we are completely inundated with all types of media. We consume it like fast food, like another sugar high, like the next trendy drug addiction. We scroll and swipe and click our way through the day, often times paying very little mind to what we’re actually looking at. This age of rapidly escalating media consumption has birthed a new generation of young creatives who aspire to be the next content creator who will force you to stop scrolling, and make you pause in a moment of admiration (or sheer W.T.F.) at what the combination of pixels on your screen amount to.
But very few actually make me pause, even fewer make me click through to their profile. And then there was Jeremy Snell. I don’t think I’ve ever used the word “dreamy” so often when describing someone’s work. His photos not only made me pause, click through, and hit that blue “Follow” button — they led me somewhere else entirely. During the moments that I examine his pictures, I am swept away to a dreamscape where things look like a slightly manipulated version of reality, but where the stories that are being told are all too real.
His photos are poetic. They instill a sense of wonder and enchantment, and they feel reminiscent of what I like to think is what life would look like if all the fluff and nonsense fell away, and we could only see what truly mattered. Not a single streak of light misplaced, not a single thing in focus that needn’t be, no superfluous elements to take away from a very clearly defined focal point, predetermined by Jeremy at the single click of his shutter.
At only 27 years old, he’s been the one of the chief storytellers behind Charity: Water — one of the most well-known nonprofit organizations in the world — and his client list boasts titans like Apple, Facebook, and Unicef. He’s traveled to almost 50 countries to spearhead projects that provoke thought, alter perspectives, and bridge cultural divides around the world. I had the true honor of picking his brain for our very first monthly “Boyfriend Material” segment, to get some insight into his processes — both technical and creative — and to discuss the humility, compassion, and empathy that his line of work has instilled within him.
Q - You’re one of the youngest in the industry at the moment (we like to consider you a prodigy), and yet you’ve already made a name for yourself and developed your own style. When did you know you wanted to work behind a camera, and how long did it take for you to develop your creative aesthetic?
A - Thank you! There is so much really young talent popping up everywhere these days! I started taking photographs when I was fourteen and living abroad in Asia. At the time, I mainly used photography to document my high school emo band, but that passion slowly grew towards capturing portraiture and cultural narratives. I’ve found that the type of work and looks that I gravitate towards changes every year. For that reason, I don't think I have a specific aesthetic that defines me.
2. Let’s talk about your current aesthetic then, if you don’t mind? Right now it seems like your style is almost minimal, without sacrificing drama. You achieve a very climactic, emotional image with sometimes very little visible (silhouettes, a sliver of light on the face, a glint in the eye), and you aren’t afraid of a more shallow, softer feel -- of having very little in focus but an eye, for example. The end result is that your images make you feel like you’re in a dream -- almost like when you can’t remember the whole of your dream, you just remember how it made you feel, how powerful or beautiful or deeply saddening it was. When was it that you realized that you could say so much while sometimes technically showing so little?
Wow, that’s a beautifully poetic way of putting it. I think you described it better than I could have. I’ve always been a very minimal person, with both my visual aesthetic and choice of words. For me, things shouldn’t be said unless they provide unique perspective or value. From the very beginning, I think I’ve unconsciously applied the same approach to my framing. Even in wide scenes, I try to have clean lines and a clear focus on what I want the eye drawn towards.
3. How much of what you learned about photography and how to shoot, did you learn by chance?
I don’t think learning is something that really happens by chance. It’s an active decision and mindset.I’ve definitely been in situations while traveling where I learned something that I wasn’t expecting to, but I do think it still requires a thirsty spirit and an open mind.
4. We understand you always travel with a lighting kit. How difficult is it to travel with your kit, and do you ever still feel uncomfortable setting it up in those remote areas?
For me, lighting is the most important technical aspect of an image. I want to make sure I am putting myself in situations where I have control over it.
It’s not difficult at all to travel with lights. There are so many different options and ranges of sizes for portable lights, there’s really no excuse. It all comes down to how familiar you are with working with each system and knowing when and how to supplement natural light with them.
5. What process do you go through when figuring out how to properly capture a moment to tell the story you want to tell?
When telling a story through cinematography, I work very closely with the director and try to make sure that the technical aspects of the photography are servicing the overall story of the film. For still photography, I think the task is less holistic. I’m mostly interested in creating and capturing images that cause you to wonder and be curious. Who is this person? What have they gone through? What is going on in this moment? If the viewer is asking these questions, then I’ve done my job.
6. Your subjects always seem comfortable around you, especially considering you light every shot and that’s not something they’d be used to. Do you have to get translators or fixers to help you to connect with and communicate with your subjects? What are some of the ways you communicate with them non-verbally?
The truth is, not everyone is always comfortable around me or my cameras. I try my best to give off a warm and friendly spirit, but sometimes it can still be difficult for subjects I’ve just met to be themselves. The key is having patience and not being scared by silence. Most awkward moments don’t last forever, and if you just wait through them, those moments can often turn into something quite authentic. Body language and posture is also very important. People open or close themselves off to you based on how you nonverbally position yourself. As for translators, sometimes they are necessary, but I often prefer to interact with my subjects nonverbally without a 3rd party. Portraiture is about someone’s relationship to a lens, so I want to eliminate as many distractions as possible.
Also, I don’t use artificial lighting for ALL of my shots.
7. How do you know when you’ve captured “THE photograph"? What do you think is the difference between a good photograph, and a great one?
I often find myself overshooting scenes. I like to cast a wide net and wait until the edit room to judge. That being said, I usually know when I haven’t gotten a shot yet. I get a strong sense of emotion when I see a certain look from someone or when light interacts with skin perfectly. Strong emotion is what makes a photograph great.
8. Can you tell us about the different feelings you get when you’re working on humanitarian projects, and big client projects? How do they differ in the ways that they push you and inspire you?
Projects for humanitarian causes always require a lot more of me, physically and emotionally. These trips have small crews, so I carry all of my own gear. We are also often in extreme weather conditions, dealing with sensitive and heartbreaking subject matter. I actually love learning how to be creative within these parameters — these type of projects are why I got into this industry and they will always be the stories I strive to tell.
However, most of the work I’ve done in the last year has been in the commercial sector. The commercial landscape right now is actually very interesting to me — I’ve found that a lot of major brands are becoming more and more interested in telling human stories. I’m always seeking projects that tell unique perspectives and stories that challenge our perceptions about the world.
8. What has being a humanitarian photographer taught you about people? What has it taught you about yourself?
I’m always being reminded that despite cultural differences, people around the world are all very much the same. There is more that binds us than separates us. I also believe that love and empathy are some of the greatest qualities one can have. I never want to be in a place where I am not growing in love and empathy towards others.
9. We couldn’t agree with this more. Could you quickly share with us one of the most humbling and formative experiences you’ve had out in the field? What was one of the key moments that instilled this sense of love and empathy in you -- that reminded you of just how similar we all are?
Every non-profit job I go on is a formative and maturing experience for me. These trips help ground me and keep me focused on why I got into the film industry in the first place. Moments like dancing in sandstorms with kids in Mali, or enduring a massive rainstorm in a tiny kayak with local boaters in Ghana are memories I’ll never forget. The sense of family and comradery that I feel with our local guides and assistants after jobs is always my favorite. These are the friendships that remind me we are all in this together.
I’m also always in awe whenever people invite me into their home for tea and snacks. The sense of hospitality and genuine care people can have towards complete strangers is truly humbling.
10. What are your thoughts on how women are portrayed in the media these days? What are your thoughts on the ways women portray themselves in the media these days? We know these are loaded questions with several layers to peel back, so just go with what first comes to mind.
Traditionally, media has tried to put women in a box, but I think things are starting to change for the better. There are so many really inspiring women who don’t accept the status quo or the destructive barriers that our society and media have placed upon them. These women are leading an incredible example for the next generation about what true equality means, and how women can really lead the future in a male dominated world.
11. How do you feel about platforms like Instagram and Youtube as means of communication and sharing your work? What are some of your favorite experiences derived from social media? What are some of your least favorite?
In a lot of ways, Instagram has become the new portfolio for artists. It’s great, because people get a chance to see a bit of your personality before deciding to work with you. I also believe you can learn almost anything from Youtube or Vimeo.
I’ve made a lot of great lifelong friends through Instagram — for me, that’s the greatest use of the platform.
Unfortunately, it’s becoming very common for people to get their sense of value and self-worth from social media. It feels like the world is constantly trying to tell you that who you are is not enough. I’ve definitely gone through cycles of comparing myself to others, but with growth, I’ve been learning to just focus on my own sensibilities and passions without worrying about what others are doing.
12. Do you have any tips for people trying to get into humanitarian photography work (or humanitarian work in general) that you can share with us?
There are so many organizations and causes that are in great need of thoughtful photography. Find them and offer to shoot for them. Be willing to invest yourself and your finances to make this happen. The more you can build your portfolio and experience in this sector, the more you will get asked to do it. You have to start somewhere. The right timing is a big part of getting in the door, but the more you put yourself out there, the greater your chances are.
13. There are so many photographers out there these days, do you have any tips for other photography enthusiasts on how to stand out?
Find the type of photography that resonates with you personally. Be passionate and excel in one thing — don’t try to be good at everything.
14. It’s so interesting that you say this, because this is exactly what I’ve always been told, and yet I’ve never listened. As a result, I’ve dabbled in many things and have tried to start quite a few projects with friends ever since I was younger, until I finally landed on projects that really stuck, like this one (SheDidThat). Because of this, I think I can personally vouch for the fact that it’s also alright to try a lot of things (and be good at them) and figure out what doesn’t work for you, in order to get a clear picture of what does work for you. Sometimes I feel the most important thing is just to try, even if you might not be great at it. You could end up a Jack of all trades or Jill of all trades. Do you believe in this concept?
That’s so amazing! And yes, I do fully support this. I think I was more specifically talking about how to stand out in the photography space, where it is important to own your unique voice. That being said, definitely pursue other passions and fields that make you happy! I think it’s the best thing when people dabble in all sorts of arts and entrepreneurship — it really shows that there is no such thing as a linear path to where you want to end up.
15. Who are 5 people (dead or alive) that you’d want to invite to your dinner party?
For an entertaining evening...
1. Jiro (if he brings 🍣)
2. Philip Glass (if he brings a 🎹)
3. Jesus (I’m sure he’ll bring 🍷)
4. Buddha ( 🕉)
5. Yayoi Kusama ( 🔴)
16. Can we be friends? Haha. Just kidding. But not really.
Are we not already friends?
Yes, I suppose we are Jeremy. :)
This wraps the first of many monthly Boyfriend Material segments, where we’ll spotlight and celebrate men who are inspiring, uplifting, and empowering the world through their craft.