Where children Play: Playground by James Mollison

"That moment when the lesson is over and you just run. The sheer excitement for it. The lesson ends. And you just explode out into the playground, and you're just running…"
James Mollison

Let's put illustration aside for a moment, because I must talk about this amazing large format photography book.  
Playground is a collection of thought-provoking photographs of playgrounds from around the world. British photographer James Mollison visited sixty playgrounds across the four continents, set his camera during the break and captured moments of playtime which he then used to compose the final picture. Each single double-page photograph is therefore constructed with multiple frames, a sort of time-lapse photography.

Why playgrounds? Playground are more than 'just' places for free play, more than a break from actual education.
In playgrounds children learn social skills and learn how to negotiate their place in the world. 
They are places where we collect the most vivid memories of our childhood, as well as places for bullying, violence, cruelty and sadness. Playground experiences can mold a lifetime.

Mollison's photographs capture both assonances and dissonances among the different places, finding some common narratives. Look at the astonishing, disgraceful differences between playtime scenes and then look again, to see the similarities. Which ones interest you more?
From boisterous, diverse London state schools to exclusive boarding schools in the British countryside or in India, where yoga is compulsory from kindergarten, to the outrageous poverty of schools in Kenya where many children are AIDS orphans or blind albino students to a school in Gaza funded by the United Nations which had to make classrooms in shipping containers. None of the teachers want to teach in these classrooms, so they take turns.

In the beautiful foreword to the book Welsh journalist Jon Ronson writes "I see this book as a book of horror photographs. wherever in the world the playground is, you notice it: little flashes of violence and cruelty. 

The author said that one country stood out as having by far the nasties playground behaviour. It wasn't Kenya, although Kenya was rough. Bolivia was rough, too, but it wasn't Bolivia. It wasn't Los Angeles either, despite James' preconceptions of the place from listening to NWA albums.

It was Britain.

One of the photographs shows an altercation unfolding in a British playground. 
It's a boy and a girl. The girl had shouted at the boy: "You're a queer".
The boy replied: "I'm not, I'm not".
The girl yelled: "Yeah you are".
And then he just lost it. He started shaking and he hit her. He couldn't control it. He just slapped her.
Then she was offing and blinding even more. Suddenly the whole playground focused in on it. All the kids standing around were totally thrilled. He was in this moment of complete humiliation. I really felt for him. The sheer enjoyment that everyone else was getting. One kid started taking a video. The other kids were winding the situation up. Some were shouting. " You can't hit a girl". Others were shouting at her: "You can't take that".
This project really put me off living in London. The kids were just so…lippy.

At an American private school, cartwheels and handstand are banned for health and safety reasons (a ban that is widely ignored, James is relieved to tell me). In the unsupervised playgrounds of Kenya, a popular game is "urr-up", which involves children throwing each other several feet into the air. In Norway, the kids are forced to play outside even in polar conditions. At a fancy futuristic school in Japan, the playground has an electronic roof that plays music as it closes.
There are darker sides. One head teacher of a slum primary school told me she'd check to see if her pupils walked strangely, as this was often a sign that they had been sexually abused.
One school in Bethlehem used to have a view of Israel but now only has a view of the dividing wall and the army turrets. There's a mural painted on the wall of two soldiers dragging away a blindfolded man. The head teacher told James that the wall serves as a constant reminder to the children o" of the humiliation we have to suffer".
The cause of all violence is humiliation, violence being an attempt to replace shame with self-esteem. I suppose some of the playground fighters captured in this book will grow up to be actual fighters".

The back matter features the list of the schools with descriptions of their location and peculiarities. These have been sensibly placed at the end of the book instead of having them as captions, in order to keep the focus on the photographs. 

Why this book? Because photography is powerful and eye-opening and a photography book can draw children's attention as much as an illustrated book, or more:). Everyone will see different things in these photographs depending on our background, experiences and memories, and so do children. We can follow their lead when looking at them and use the book to start a conversation about what their experience in the playground is, and about what it's like for children attending other schools or living in faraway countries.
Where does your child play?

A book to cherish for years to come and that will make a perfect gift for kids and parents alike.

Playground [April 2015]
by James Mollison 
Forward by Jon Ronson
Published by Aperture
Reading age: 5+
Themes: Photography, Non-Fiction


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