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PHOTOS: Young People Look You In The Eye And Open Up Their Souls

Thembinkosi Fanwell Ngwenya from the series "Similar Uniforms: We Refuse to Compare."
Thembinkosi Fanwell Ngwenya from the series "Similar Uniforms: We Refuse to Compare."

His name is Thembinkosi Fanwell Ngwenya. He's 18. And when you look at his portrait, he seems to be looking right back at you.

The photograph of Ngwenya (above) by Claudio Rasano took top honors in this year's Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize. It's one of many portraits of children that dominate the finalists, which are on display at London's National Portrait Gallery until Feb. 26. That wasn't a deliberate choice by the judges, says curator Sabina Jaskot-Gill, who calls the international competition "a strange beast." It's open to everyone — professional or amateur — who has taken a photo in the past year.

That so many lenses were focused on young people may be a reflection of current events. "It's been a tumultuous year," Jaskot-Gill says, and there's concern about the effects on the next generation.

But children are always compelling subjects, she adds. They're forming their identities, and posing for a camera gives them a chance to be seen in a different light.

As the judges whittled down the entries, they kept gravitating to the portrait of Ngwenya, which is part of Rasano's series "Similar Uniforms: We Refuse to Compare," which featured 50 pupils at a high school in Johannesburg, South Africa. Although Ngwenya's clothes have been selected for him, "his individuality comes through," says Jaskot-Gill. His jacket is buttoned up and ironed, with a badge carefully hand-stitched over the pocket — hints of how much he values his appearance.

We asked her to take a closer look at several other top photos featuring youth.

Boy Scout

Photo by Karl Ohiri and Riikka Kassinen

Boy Scout, 2015 © Karl Ohiri and Riikka Kassinen
/ Courtesy of Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2016

The mustard yellow background and forest green uniform make for an irresistible color combination, Jaskot-Gill says. But what makes this image really pop is the Boy Scout himself, who had been watching as the photographer duo shot motorcycle taxi drivers in Lagos, Nigeria. The fact that he ended up in front of the camera was "serendipitous," Jaskot-Gill says. And although the scout presents himself with a somewhat reticent expression, the details end up feeling quite revealing. "See how baggy his uniform is," Jaskot-Gill says. That combined with the frayed neckerchief gives viewers a window into his life.

'Be Murdered'

Photo by Judy Gelles

"Be Murdered," November 2015
/ Courtesy of Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2016

Can something be considered a portrait if it's taken from behind? What if you put text on the image? These are questions judges debated for this photo and others that pushed the boundaries of portraiture, Jaskot-Gill says. But even though we can't see the face of this fourth-grader from Durban, South Africa, her personality comes through in the way she cocks her hip, holds her hands to her sides and lets one sock ride down. The pose has a "lighthearted, charming quality," Jaskot-Gill says, so it's jarring to read the accompanying quotes, which are her answers to a series of questions Gelles has posed to kids around the world. In response to what she's worried about, the girl says, "I am scared that one day I'll be murdered."


Photo by Carol Allen-Storey

Macleen, 2015 © Carol Allen-Storey
/ Courtesy of Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2016

A nearly life-size portrait brings viewers into a small room in Uganda, with a young girl lying on the floor and lovingly holding a doll. "You want to know more about this relationship," Jaskot-Gill says. It was only after the selection process that the judges learned the photo was part of a series commissioned by the Elton John AIDS Foundation focusing on the isolation of children with HIV. Macleen's father died of AIDS, and now she lives with her mother in a place without plumbing. Understanding the backstory makes the image that much more heartbreaking, Jaskot-Gill says.

John and Anastazia

Photos by Tom Merilion

John and Anastazia from the series Tanzanian Street children 2015 © Tom Merilion
/ Courtesy of Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2016

The clean, white backdrops on these photos serve a purpose, Jaskot-Gill says. For Merilion's series, "Tanzanian Street Children," he wanted viewers to focus on the kids rather than the setting. John and Anastazia are both gazing off into the distance — although in the gallery, the two portraits have been placed to look at one another. And in those eyes, it's clear the children have seen a lot of life in a short amount of time. "They look mature beyond their years," says Jaskot-Gill, who is drawn to their noble bearing. Anastazia's right arm is badly burned, but instead of hiding the scar, she poses with it in front of her.

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Corrected: December 23, 2016 at 11:00 PM CST
An earlier version of the text of this story incorrectly identified Thembinkosi Fanwell Ngwenya as Katlehong Matsenen.