James Mollison is a photographer that was born in Kenya and raised in London. His photography is built around smart, original concepts and their applications to social and environmental themes. He has published five books of photography, all with very intriguing themes. See them here. This post is about his latest book, Playground. In this book, he travelled all over the world taking photos of children at play on school playgrounds during recess.
Warren Lane Elementary Inglewood, Los Angeles
In 2009, Mollison was reflecting upon his Oxford school days and realized that nearly everything he remembered happened on the playground. The playground is where a school’s drama unfolds. It is usually loosely supervised and it is where children learn how to play and interact.
The project grew to include playgrounds in more than a dozen countries. While he found an incredible diversity in the schools, there was a commonality in the children’s play, particularly with boys. “Maybe it’s just because I was thinking about my own time on the playground” Mollison says. “It didn’t matter where I was, boys pretty much did the same thing”. Mollison added “Play was a little rougher in some places than others, but how they played was the same. Perhaps the only exception to it was Japan, where the kids really were amazingly well behaved with each other”.
Below are Mr. Mollison’s observations about the school from his book.
Dechen Phodrang, Thimphu, Bhutan
On a dramatic ridge overlooking Thimphu, student monks in red start the day with one hour of praying before their first classes start at 6:30 a.m. At 8:00 a.m., they have breakfast and a short break before resuming classes. Many boys are sent to the monastery because their families cannot afford to feed them.
Aida Boys School, Bethlehem, The West Bank
My starting point had been that idea of the moments on the playground, but the pictures have turned out to be as much about the environment, the landscape, and the setting of the school. I found this school near the wall which had this amazing mural depicting the stone throwing confrontations. The third and fourth graders watch the towers to see if the soldiers are looking, and, if not, they throw stones at them. Whenever hostilities flare up with the Israelis, the air fills with tear gas and the headmaster sends everyone home.
Holtz High School, Tel Aviv,Israel
In Israel, I photographed a military high school, a school in an Orthodox Hasidic Jewish community in the West Band that looked across a Palestinian village, and a liberal arts school. So you’ve kind of got this range of schools within the country, but comparing them is too simple of a generalization.
Kroo Bay Primary, Freetown, Sierra Leone
This school has a little river behind it that floods every year, so rubbish accumulates in the banks. It’s pretty disgusting walking through some of the things, such as cans and bottles, but the kids were completely oblivious. I spent the whole time wincing, worried that one of them would cut their foot on a metal can as they ran around playing their games.
Shohei Elementary School, Tokyo, Japan
The playground of this state school is on the roof, above the sixth-floor classrooms. It’s bizarre, but in Tokyo you see how little space there is. The playground has a retractable roof that plays music when it closes.
St. Mary of the Assumption Elementary School, Brookline, Massachusetts
This is my wife’s old school at a moment where there were a couple of kids who taunted the boy with his fingers in his ears. It reminded me of the saying that sticks and stones will break your bones but names will never hurt you, which I think is incredibly untrue, kids can be incredibly mean.
Hull Trinity House Academy, Hull, United Kingdom
The nearly 300 pupils come mostly from white, working-class backgrounds. On the playground, they are tough and boisterous. The cluster of boys on the right was giving the blond boy a wedgie.
Utheim Skole Kårvåg, Averoy,Norway
I was very impressed by the kids and the playground atmosphere in Norway. It didn’t matter how extreme the weather was; they all go out and learn through the experience of play. There are areas where they can climb trees or build camps from sticks and stones.
Valley View Academy Mathare, Nairobi, Kenya
The schools in Kenya were quite amazing visually, with the many children and the colors of their uniforms. However, I remember talking to a headmistress in the slum school in Nairobi, and she was telling me how she would watch the kids to see how they were walking, because if they weren’t walking properly, that was a sign they might have been sexually abused.
I would love to hear your thoughts about Mr. Mollison’s work. I find it to be so truthful and fascinating.
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