The story behind the picture: ‘A boy in the crowd’

‘A boy in the crowd,’ a striking image by photographer Jonathan Banks of a Liberian child trying to retrieve his ball in the shadow of an armed soldier, was selected as the overall winner of the fifth Siena International Photography Awards this year.

Jonathan shot this winning image in Monrovia, Liberia, while working for International Alert.

To celebrate his award, we asked Jonathan a few questions to find out more about him, his work and this photo.

About Jonathan Banks

Jonathan is an award-winning photographer with over 20 years’ experience. Having studied under the prolific artist John Blakemore and graduated from the University of Derby with a BA honours in Photographic Studies, Jonathan started his career with editorial photography freelancing for The Daily Telegraph and various agencies, but soon expanded his photography portfolio and started working with corporates and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

“I am passionate about my work and embrace the challenges of collaborating with global corporations, magazines and NGOs alike. I work with a number of charities because I believe my photographs do make a difference. Every assignment is different and, as such, is approached uniquely. I am always on the lookout for new creative partnerships.”

How did you come to take this image? What’s the story there?

I was asked to document the fourth annual Liberia Peace and Cultural Festival that International Alert were helping to organise. Liberia had experienced civil war for many years and this festival brought together people from the region’s many diverse ethnic groups, providing a wonderful opportunity to celebrate their cultural diversity as the unifying strength that it can and should be.

With any subject, I observe what is happening while trying to determine how I can best show what is in front of me. I have revisited the digital series of photographs to see how I came to this photograph. I am normally so immersed in seeing how to frame the picture and capture the moment that I am unaware of everything else.

I had been circling this particular soldier, when I sensed something occurring behind. Suddenly out of the crowd leaned this boy reaching for his precious ball. This was a child who had grown up in war and had good reason to be scared of soldiers and their guns. He wanted to get his ball back, but his eyes were fixed on the soldier. This all happened in the blink of an eye and resulted in this picture, which seems to represent the precariousness of peace, as seen through the eyes of a young child with little understanding of the greater dynamics at play. All he knew was, he wanted his ball back, but also to stay safe.

What role do photographs play in telling a story?

Humanitarian photography strives to raise awareness for the issues that an NGO is trying to resolve, showcasing the work that they are doing, which often has the dual purpose of supporting advocacy for policy change and generating revenue for them.

Humanitarian photography is highly informed storytelling with unique access to fragile situations that are hard to achieve in any other way. When people look at images of suffering, their immediate response is to value what they have and feel for those that are in pain.

How has photography changed because of social media?

Photography will continue to evolve alongside our understanding of photographs. Photography has changed drastically in the past 25 years. Technology has to take some credit for this, with the digital revolution and new social media platforms to showcase our work. But we only have to look at the new breed of photographers to see how a new wave of photojournalist is enriching our vision. I have always strived towards my work having both form and content, beauty to the eye and a language to both the heart and minds of the audience.

Social media is definitely a new way of getting my photos seen. It is important for the charitable organisations that I photograph for to utilise every opportunity of having their work seen.

What inspires you in your work?

Inspiration comes from everywhere and everyone around me. It is the music that I listen to, the way my kids look at things, other photographers and whatever I’m photographing.

What are some of the challenges of working in conflict/post conflict zones?

It is important to note that humanitarian photographers are often photographing vulnerable people in sensitive situations, where the picture should not be considered more important than the dignity of those present.

I try to apply the ethical code of photojournalism while remembering that I am there as a humanitarian photographer representing the non-profit organisation. This means understanding the organisation’s objectives with the programme in hand and being sensitive to the people that I photograph. Knowing when not to photograph and observing is often more important than photographing.


Follow Jonathan on Twitter and LinkedIn to keep up to date with his work.