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UEL student wins prestigious British Journal of Photography award 

Cathal Abberton wins BJP’s Breakthrough Award for Undergraduate Single Image for his portrait of a Ghanaian migrant

By Kiera Hay

A University of East London (UEL) student has won a prestigious British Journal of Photography Breakthrough Award for his portrait of a Ghanaian migrant in southern Italy.

Cathal Abberton, of Wandsworth, London, took the shot during a trip to Riace, in southern Italy. His subject, Leo, stares pensively at the camera as he slouches in a plastic chair outdoors on a clear, sunny day. 

Cathal is a 2017 graduate of UEL’s BA (Hons) Photography programme. 

He said, “Leo’s story is the same as many people who have come to Italy from all over Ghana or Nigeria. I have a huge number of portraits of people in Riace, but Leo’s image was the strongest.”

The photograph, which won in the category of Undergraduate Single Image, is part of Cathal’s final-year degree project, which examines the plight of refugees and migrants in Europe.

Cathal and the other Breakthrough winners were selected by a panel of judges that included Emma Lewis, Assistant Curator at the Tate Modern, and Emma Bowkett, Director of Photography at FT Weekend Magazine. Cathal’s category was open to current further and higher education students and recent graduates. 

The winners were announced 5 June. Their images will be showcased in a special exhibition at Old Truman Brewery in east London on 22 June.

Leo was one of many Riace migrants and refugees whom Cathal photographed during a birthday party for a young African woman named Joyce. Several of the celebrants, including Joyce, had family members who died on the journey to Europe. 

Riace is held up as a model of integration in many ways, Cathal said, but the reality can be quite different. Refugees and migrants often must deal with dangerous working conditions and low wages, and it can be difficult for them to access healthcare and education opportunities, he said. 

Cathal said, “In all my portraits there is a sense of waiting, of being in limbo. They can’t escape. They are stuck there and immobilised due to the economic conditions and not being able to earn enough money, but also by the European bureaucracy which won’t allow them to move from country to country.”

Besides Italy, Cathal travelled to Turkey, Greece, France and around the UK for his final-year project, visiting areas where migrants and refugees live. Some of his expenses were covered by UEL’s Going Global programme, which pays for students to pursue special study projects around the world.

Dr Debra Benita Shaw, Reader in Cultural Theory at UEL and one of Cathal’s tutors, said the young photographer is an outstanding student.

Dr Shaw said, “His application to understanding the politics of migration and his sympathetic and engaged approach to his subjects has resulted in a set of sophisticated and emotionally charged images. The award was well deserved and we are extremely proud of him.”

With his degree in hand, Cathal is now considering various new projects, including self-publishing a photography book of refugees and migrants. Winning a BJP Breakthrough Award has opened up new doors, he said.

Cathal was also recently awarded the Dean’s Prize from UEL's School of Arts and Digital Industries.

He said, “My time at UEL been fantastic. The amount of help that I’ve had not only from the lecturers in photography but other lecturers from programmes ranging from fine arts to graphic design, as well as other students, has been fantastic. At UEL, there’s a real sense of learning together.” 

He added, “I can’t credit my lecturers enough. They’ve really set me on a trajectory in terms of my career.”