Junko Akita

Top 10 2021 through 10 compelling portraits

© Junko Akita

Portrait photography is a diverse and fascinating genre, one with a long and storied history that dates back to the medium’s embryonic days. 


─── by Josh Bright, November 24, 2021

For generations, practitioners have sought to capture the quintessence of others in a single frame: their emotions, complexities, and character.

To celebrate our 2021 Portrait Photography Award, (open for entries until Nov 30) we have surveyed the winners and finalists from all awards held this year and selected 10 portraits that display the immense potential of the genre.

medium format analog color portrait of a skinhead girl in London, UK by Owen Harvey
© Owen Harvey

1. “Mykie, Skinhead” Hackney, London, UK – Owen Harvey (1st Prize Winner Portrait Award May 2021)

Selected by world-renowned photographer Nadav Kander as the winner of our Portrait Award in May of this year, Owen Harvey’s arresting and intriguing portrait expresses the unique disposition of the youthful subject. 

Though captured recently, the girl’s distinct guise (a rendition of the once-ubiquitous skinhead style that emerged in London’s working-class neighborhoods during the 1960s) combined with the muted analog tones, endows it with a vintage-aesthetic, as though from a different time, whilst her demeanor, intense and unflinching, provokes deep curiosity. Who is she? What is she thinking? What is her story?

Group portrait by Jack Lawson. “The Special Eagles”, Nigeria’s amputee football team walk towards the sea on the beach outside Lagos.
© Jack Lawson

2. “The Special Eagles”, Lagos, Nigeria – Jack Lawson (Finalist, Visual Storytelling Award, January 2021)

Jack Lawson’s striking image portrays four members of Nigeria’s amputee football team, ‘The Special Eagles”, on a beach near Lagos, the country’s largest city.

Beautifully framed and characterized by a masterful appreciation of light and form, it is an emphatic composition that captivates with immediacy: four men, set against a watercolor-like ocean vista, united by a deep and unflinching bond and a shared love for ‘the beautiful game’.

Self portrait by Berber Theunissen. Motherhood
© Berber Theunissen

3. “The Soul Within” – Berber Theunissen (1st Prize Winner, Visual Storytelling Award, January 2021)

Berber Theunissen’s medium-format self-portrait, juror Nichole Sobecki‘s winning selection for our Visual Storytelling award back in January (and the cover image of our 2021 Talents of the Year photobook, available here) transcends traditional portrayals of the pregnant female form. Veiled by the diaphanous drapes and illuminated by the natural light from the window, her silhouette appears ethereal and ghost-like, a physical manifestation of her very soul.

A truly extraordinary image, it is an embodiment of the artist’s own experiences, that evinces a complexity of thoughts and feelings: fatigue, heartbreaking fears, overwhelming responsibilities alternated with a soft inner peace, overpowering happiness.”

color portrait photograph of a gang memeber in New Zealand
© Casey Morton

4. “Gangs of New Zealand”  – Casey Morton (Editor’s pick, Open Call Award, August 2021)

Part of a series depicting members of New Zealand’s infamous Black Power gang, Casey Morton’s striking image is an excellent example of a contemporary subject portrayed in a ‘classic’ portrait style. 

Often vilified and scapegoated by the country’s mainstream media, the gang’s members are primarily Maori men who, in  Morton’s words “have fallen through the cracks of society”. His aim, (after gaining their trust through mutual acquaintances) was to challenge such preconceptions, to portray them with complete equity and veracity, and thus give the viewer the space and freedom to form their own opinion.

color portrait of a young bull rider in Madison County, North Carolina, USA - People & Photography
© Jack Sorokin

5. “Praying #2”, Madison County, North Carolina, USA – Jack Sorokin (3rd Prize Winner, Open Call Award, August 2021)

Jack Sorokin’s arresting portrait is part of a series exploring masculinity through the microcosm of his local rodeo.

In contrast to ‘traditional’ portraiture, it is completely unstaged: a young man caught in a moment of quiet prayer, simultaneously imparts strength and vulnerability. It displays an impressive apperception of light, defined by understated, hues, that endow it with a wonderful painting-like quality,  and demonstrates perfectly how a single portrait can both capture the atmosphere of a fleeting moment in time, and reveal the intricacies of others.

Color film photography by Laura Pannack, boy, youth
© Laura Pannack

6. “Baruch” – Laura Pannack (Finalist, Visual Storytelling Award, January 2021)

English photographer, Laura Pannack, is a master of capturing the personalities of youthful subjects, exemplified beautifully in this image taken from a series which, in the artist’s words, “explores how we choose our paths in life and questions how much control we have to change who we will become”.

Baruch, the eponym and protagonist of the series, chose to leave his Orthodox Jewish community aged 16 in order to study at university. Pictured here, melancholic and alone, his pale face framed against the emerald-green pillow, he reflects on his decision, pondering his identity and future: a quiet moment of weary introspection, with which many will relate.

Color portrait photograph of a naked woman by Fleur Louwe
© Fleur Louwe

7. “Anonymous Memories”  –  Fleur Louwe (Finalist, Emerging Talent Award, March 2021)

Fleur Louwe’s conceptual self-portrait is a fascinating reflection on the very nature of photography.

In comparison to more ‘classical’ art forms, the medium is often said to portray reality, but Louwe challenges this conception, creating a surreal and arresting composition, (inspired by baroque sculpture) that blurs the lines between artist and subject, and thus displays the profound creative potential of photographic portraiture.

color portrait of a young Irish traveller boy and his rooster by Bob Newman
© Bob Newman

8. “Pa and his Rooster”, Ireland (2nd Prize Winner, Portrait Award, May 2021)

Bob Newman’s depiction of a young Irish traveler boy and his rooster, is a wonderful attestation to the power of photographic portraiture.

Our protagonist, positioned dead center, immediately apprehends our attention: his unflinching gaze conveys a strength and maturity that belies his clear juvenility. A litany of textures: the tattered backdrop; the rooster’s feathers; the boy’s face and clothes; combine with the subtle hues to further intensify our interest, and evoke the early color transcriptions of Ireland by the great Inge Morath.

color portrait of a young boy with sky reflection by Junko Akita
© Junko Akita

9. “Cabin Life”, Norway – Junko Akita (1st Prize Winner, Emerging Talent Award, March 2021)

Truly extraordinary Junko Akita’s image, (which, in March of this year, was selected by the Washington Post’s renowned Director of Photography MaryAnne Golon as the finest entrant to our Emerging Talent Award) captured whilst on vacation in northern Norway, grips the viewer from the outset. The gaze of the child; the subtle reflection of the remote Norwegian scenery illuminated softly by the fading natural light; it is at once, intimate, moving, and emphatic, a composition that captures and celebrates the joy of family, whilst simultaneously provoking a strong sense of wanderlust (which seems particularly potent perhaps due to the restrictions of recent times).

black and white film medium format portrait of a couple in South Korea by KyeongJun Yang
© KyeongJun Yang

10. “Hug” – KyeongJun Yang (Finalist, Open Call Award, August 2021)

From the series “Men Don’t Cry”, Kyeongjun Yang’s moving portrait is a remarkably powerful and personal transcription that testifies to a father’s love for his family. Beautifully composed within the equilateral confines of the medium-format frame, the subjects (the photographer’s own mother and father) express their profound devotion and interdependence, whilst the sultry air applies a gauzy filter to the muted monochrome tones, and serves as a delicate metaphor of the theme.


All images © their respective owners

NB: The 2021 Portrait Photography Award is open for entries until Nov 30. Submit your work here

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