This is one in a series of articles on photographic projects that explore our cultural similarities and differences. Read the first installment here.
Childhood bedrooms are among the first places we call our own. Shared with others or not, these are spaces of our play, of our dreams, and of our stuff. Teddy bears, action figures, blankets, pillows, marks on the ceiling—each child’s bedroom forms its own unique world. Venice based photographer James Mollison’s book, "Where Children Sleep" explores this originary landscape, taking us inside children’s bedrooms across the globe.
Mollison’s fascinating project draws attention to a child’s ‘“material and cultural circumstances.” The series reminds us of Peter Menzel’s "Material World" which formed a kind of photographic atlas of personal possessions. Menzel and other photographers traveled around the world taking portraits of families with all of their material possessions gathered and displayed outside of their homes. The result is a staggering portrayal of the variety of materials we come to call our own.
Mollison’s “Where Children Sleep” appears to reverse Menzel’s series, taking us and our stuff back inside, back to where we came from. Though decorated and outfitted by parents, the child’s bedroom is a separate space, a space that holds “such stuff as dreams are made on”. Does Mollison’s work appear to be an anthropological look at childhood or a commentary on materialism?
Read the brief interview with James Mollison below, take a look through the slideshow from the series, and be sure to let us know what you think in the comments section.
How did you find the children to photograph? How did you get in touch with them?
I had different ways of working. In places like Nepal, China and The West Bank I worked with Save the Children who helped me gain access, but I also felt it was important to photograph children outside of the aid world and worked with a local producer. I would send a list of ideas of children that I thought would be interesting and they would work to get the access- this is also how I worked in countries like Brazil, Japan and America. Then some of the children I found while on assignment for other photographic jobs.
There seems to be an anthropological thread running throughout the series. Do you find that this is a thread that runs throughout all of your work as a photographer?
Yes I it does; my projects usually start from an observation that I then try to allude in photographs. Nearly always based around series of images; individual photographs, though they are important, don’t matter as much. With "James & Other Apes" I was interested in how you think of animals generically and how by using the ubiquitous style of the passport photograph you could explore their individual identities as well as the grey area between man and animal. With "The Disciples", group portraits of fans outside concerts, I became interested in what influences individuals’ style and how they form groups as part of their identity.
Can you tell us a particularly striking child's story you encountered on your journey?
In terms of extremes between two children, it would be between Jaime, who I photographed in his top-floor apartment on Fifth Avenue in New York, and Lehlohonolo who lived in Lesotho, in southern Africa. Jamie went to a highly sought after school and had a hectic schedule of after-school activities like judo, swimming lessons, cello and kickball; he also liked to study his finances on the Citibank website.
Lehlohonolo lived with his three brothers, who were AIDS orphans. The boys lived in a mud hut where they slept together on the floor, cuddling up to each other for warmth during the freezing cold nights. Two of Lehlohonolo’s brothers walked to a school eight kilometers away where they are also given monthly rations of food -– cereal, pulses and oil. They couldn’t remember the last time they ate meat. Sadly, they will probably live in poverty for the rest of their lives because crops are difficult to grow on the infertile land and there are no prospects of employment. The vulnerability of the these kids was very upsetting.
How does photographic documentation effect, ensure, and protect human rights?
I think an interesting example is what is happening in Syria at the moment. People are using cell phones to document atrocities that are happening and this helps focus people’s minds and keep them in the media. When, 20 years ago, Assad’s father suppressed an uprising killing thousands of people, there wasn’t much documentation and this enabled
the whole thing to be covered up.
What do you hope people will take away from this series?
We tend to inhabit a small world of friends, family, work, school etc. I hope the book gives a a glimpse into the lives some children are living in very diverse situations around the world; a chance to reflect on the inequality that exists, and realise just how lucky most of us in the developed world are.
"Roathy is eight years old. He lives on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. His home sits on a huge rubbish dump which is swarming with files. They re-use whatever they can find. Roathy's mattress, for instance, is made from old tyres. The air is thick with the stench of decomposing waste, and the ground underfoot is soft and springy-one wrong step and it gives way to a poisonous black liquid. Five thousand people live and work and pay rent here. At six o'clock every morning, Roathy and hundreds of other children are given a shower and some breakfast at a local charity centre before they start work, scavenging through the rubbish for cans and plastic bottles which are sold to a recycling company. Breakfast is often the only meal of the day. On one occasion, Roathy's family suffered food poisoning after eating a chicken which his brother had found on the dump."
"Hamdi lives in a block of flats with his parents and five siblings, in a Palestinian refugee camp on the edge of Bethlehem, West Bank. Their flat has a sitting area, a kitchen and three bedrooms. The camp was originally temporary, set up by the United Nations in 1948. More than sixty years later, it is still there, now housing three times as many inhabitants. It is overcrowded. Hamdi is thirteen years old and attends a boys' school where his father hopes he will study hard enough to gain a degree, to give him better opportunities than his father had. Hamdi has experienced violence on the streets of Bethlehem. His sixteen-year-old half-brother was killed by soldiers during a demonstration against Israeli occupation, and at the age of nine, Hamdi was shot in the foot for confronting Israeli soldiers in a tank. His injury has not deterred him from further confrontations."
"Tzvika is nine years old and lives in Beitar Illit, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. It is a gated community of thirty-six thousand Haredi (Orthodox) Jews, who live their lives according to a strict religious code set out in the Jewish holy book, the Talmud. Televisions and newspapers are banned from the settlement. The average family has nine children, but Tzvika has just one sister and two brothers, with whom he shares his room. Like all good Haredi boys, Tzvika reveres God and wants to become a rabbi when he is older. He lives in a modern apartment block and is taken by car to school, a two-minute drive away. Religion is the most important subject, followed by Hebrew and maths. Sport is banned from the curriculum. Tzvika goes to the library every day and enjoys reading the holy scriptures. All the books in the library are religious books. Tzvika also likes to play religious games on his computer. His favourite food is schnitzel and chips."
"Kaya is four years old. She lives with her parents in a small apartment in Tokyo, Japan. Most apartments in Japan are small because land is very expensive to buy and there is such a large population to accommodate. Kaya's bedroom is every little girl's dream. It is lined from floor to ceiling with clothes and dolls. Kaya's mother makes all Kaya's dresses-up to three a month, usually. Now Kaya has thirty dresses and coats, thirty pairs of shoes, sandals and boots, and numerous wigs. (The pigtails in the picture are made from hairpieces.) Her friends love to come round to try on her clothes. When she goes to school, however, she has to wear a school uniform. Her favourite foods are meat, potatoes, strawberries and peaches. She wants to be a cartoonist when she grows up, drawing Japanese 'anime' cartoons."
"Nantio is fifteen years old and a member of the Rendille tribe in northern Kenya. She has two brothers and two sisters. Her home is a tent-like dome made from cattle hide and plastic, with little room to stand. There is a fire in the middle, around which the family sleep. Nantio's household chores include looking after the goats, chopping firewood and fetching water. She went to the village school for a few years but decided not to continue. Nantio is hoping a 'moran' (warrior) will select her for marriage. (She has a boyfriend now, but it is not unusual for a Rendille woman to have several boyfriends before marriage.) First, she will have to undergo circumcision, as is the custom. Nantio's status in life can be seen by the number of necklaces she wears and whether she also wears a white band, indicating that she has a boyfriend or that her menstrual cycles have begun."
"Syra is eight years old and lives with her parents and older sister in Iwol, a Bassari village in Senegal, western Africa. Syra does not really talk to people. She always looks sad. According to villagers, this is because two sorceresses chased her mother and stole Syra's and her sister's souls. Fearing for their lives, their mother travelled all around the area in a bid to cure them. She thinks she finally succeeded, but the villagers do not believe the sisters have really been cured. As a result of this witchcraft, no one will want to marry Syra now. As an unmarried woman, she will be cut off from the village, and forbidden to live under the same roof as women who can still bear children. This means she cannot stay with her mother. Syra's best hope is that her grandmother will take her in."
"Jasmine prefers to be called by her nickname, Jazzy. She lives in a big house in Kentucky, USA, with her parents and three brothers. Her house is in the countryside, surrounded by farmland. Her bedroom is full of crowns and sashes which she has won in 'child pageants'. She is only four years old and has already entered over a hundred of these competitions. Her spare time is completely taken up with preparation and rehearsal. She practises her stage routines every day with a trainer who teaches her new steps. Each weekend, she participates in a different pageant, arriving on Friday afternoon, performing on Saturday, and attending the crowning ceremony on Sunday. By the end of the show, she is quite exhausted. Jazzy enjoys being pampered and treated like a princess-having her hair done and wearing pretty clothes and make-up, with false nails and a fake tan. It is a very expensive hobby and can cost her parents a thousand dollars for each pageant she takes part in. Jazzy would like to be a rock star when she grows up."
"Jivan is four years old. He lives with his parents in a skyscraper in Brooklyn, New York. From his bedroom window, he can see across the East River to New York's Manhattan Island and the Williamsburg Suspension Bridge which connects it to Brooklyn. Jivan has his own bedroom with an en-suite bathroom and a toy cupboard. The room was designed by Jivan's mother, who is an interior designer. His father is a DJ and music producer. Jivan's school is only ten minutes' walk away. To gain a place at this school, Jivan had to take a test to prove that he can mix socially with other children. He found that quite stressful as he is a very shy boy. His parents were also interviewed before he was accepted by the school. Jivan's favourite foods are steak and chocolate. He would like to be a fireman when he grows up."