Out of sight, out of mind, the phrase continues to plague my perspective. I suppose that’s why traveling’s so important. And that’s exactly what Kenyan-born, English-raised, Venice-based documentary photographer James Mollison explores in Where Children Sleep – a remarkable collaborative project between him and American journalist Chris Booth capturing the diversity of and, often, disparity between children’s lives around the world through portraits of their bedrooms. The project began on a brief to engage with children’s rights and morphed into a thoughtful meditation on poverty and privilege, its 56 images spanning from the stone quarries of Nepal to the farming provinces of China to the silver spoons of Fifth Avenue.
Perhaps most interestingly, this project was designed as an empathy tool for nine- to 13-year-olds to better understand the lives of other children around the world, but it is also very much a poignant photographic essay on human rights for the adult reader.
One of the more meaningful photo series I’ve come across in a while, these photographs paint a reality that is difficult to depict through words, revealing shocking differences across countries, going from girls with thousand dollar dresses in their private mansions to shepherd boys sleeping with goats.
Read on to let Chris Booth and James Mollison show you where children sleep.
Lamine, 12, lives in Senegal. He is a pupil at the village Koranic school, where no girls are allowed. He shares a room with several other boys. The beds are basic, some supported by bricks for legs. At six every morning the boys begin work on the school farm, where they learn how to dig, harvest maize and plough the fields using donkeys. In the afternoon they study the Koran. In his free time Lamine likes to play football with his friends.
Roathy, eight, lives on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. His home sits on a huge rubbish dump. Roathy’s mattress is made from old tyres. Five thousand people live and work here. At six every morning, Roathy and hundreds of other children are given a shower at a local charity centre before they start work, scavenging for cans and plastic bottles, which are sold to a recycling company. Breakfast is often the only meal of the day.
Erlen is 14 years old and is pregnant for the third time. She lives in a favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Her home is a small shack. She usually sleeps on the floor, but now that she is in the later stages of her pregnancy, her mother has swapped places and allowed her to sleep in the bed. Erlen was 12 when she first became pregnant, but her baby was stillborn. A year later, she lost a second baby soon after its birth. If her new baby survives, Erlen is unlikely to return to school as she will need to stay at home to look after it. She will be a single parent. Erlen would like to be a vet when she is older, and to live somewhere else.
Tzvika, nine, lives in an apartment block in Beitar Illit, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. It is a gated community of 36,000 Haredi (Orthodox) Jews. Televisions and newspapers are banned from the settlement. The average family has nine children, but Tzvika has only one sister and two brothers, with whom he shares his room. He is taken by car to school, a two-minute drive. Sport is banned from the curriculum. Tzvika goes to the library every day and enjoys reading the holy scriptures. He also likes to play religious games on his computer. He wants to become a rabbi, and his favourite food is schnitzel and chips.
Jamie, 9, lives with his parents and younger twins brother and sister in a penthouse on 5 th Avenue, New York. Jamie goes to a prestigious school and is a good student. In his spare time he takes judo and goes for a swim. He loves to study finance. When he grows up, he wants to become a lawyer like his father.
Indira, seven, lives with her parents, brother and sister near Kathmandu in Nepal. Her house has only one room, with one bed and one mattress. At bedtime, the children share the mattress on the floor. Indira has worked at the local granite quarry since she was three. The family is very poor so everyone has to work. There are 150 other children working at the quarry. Indira works six hours a day and then helps her mother with household chores. She also attends school, 30 minutes’ walk away. Her favourite food is noodles. She would like to be a dancer when she grows up.
Kaya, four, lives with her parents in a small apartment in Tokyo, Japan. Her bedroom is lined from floor to ceiling with clothes and dolls. Kaya’s mother makes all her dresses – Kaya has 30 dresses and coats, 30 pairs of shoes and numerous wigs. When she goes to school, 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.
Douha, 10, lives with her parents and 11 siblings in a Palestinian refugee camp in Hebron, in the West Bank. She shares a room with her five sisters. Douha attends a school 10 minutes’ walk away and wants to be a paediatrician. Her brother, Mohammed, killed himself and 23 civilians in a suicide attack against the Israelis in 1996. Afterwards the Israeli military destroyed the family home. Douha has a poster of Mohammed on her wall.
Jasmine (‘Jazzy’), four, 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 that she has won in beauty pageants. She has entered more than 100 competitions. Her spare time is taken up with rehearsal. She practises her stage routines every day with a trainer. Jazzy would like to be a rock star when she grows up.
Home for this boy and his family is a mattress in a field on the outskirts of Rome, Italy. The family came from Romania by bus, after begging for money to pay for their tickets. When they arrived in Rome, they camped on private land, but the police threw them off. They have no identity papers, so cannot obtain legal work. The boy’s parents clean car windscreens at traffic lights. No one from his family has ever been to school.
Dong, nine, lives in Yunnan province in south-west China with his parents, sister and grandfather. He shares a room with his sister and parents. The family own just enough land to grow their own rice and sugarcane. Dong’s school is 20 minutes’ walk away. He enjoys writing and singing. Most evenings, he spends one hour doing his homework and one hour watching television. When he is older, Dong would like to be a policeman.
Thais, 11, lives with her parents and sister on the third floor of a block of flats in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She shares a bedroom with her sister. They live in the Cidade de Deus (‘City of God’) neighbourhood, which used to be notorious for its gang rivalry and drug use. Since the 2002 film City of God, it has undergone major improvements. Thais is a fan of Felipe Dylon, a pop singer, and has posters of him on her wall. She would like to be a model.
Nantio, 15, is 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 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.
Samantha is nine years old. She lives with her parents, and her guinea pig and fish, in a detached house on Long Island, New York. Samantha has achieved a black belt in karate. She has been world champion three times. She first became interested at the age of three, when she saw a television ad featuring karate. Her bedroom is full of trophies she has won in competitions. She spends four hours a day practicing karate at the studio and also has an hour and a half of school homework each night. Samantha would like to become a karate movie star.
Joey, 11, lives in Kentucky, USA, with his parents and older sister. He regularly accompanies his father on hunts. He owns two shotguns and a crossbow and made his first kill – a deer – at the age of seven. He is hoping to use his crossbow during the next hunting season as he has become tired of using a gun. He loves the outdoor life and hopes to continue hunting into adulthood. His family always cook and eat the meat from the animal they have shot. Joey does not agree that an animal should be killed just for sport. When he is not out hunting, Joey attends school and enjoys watching television with his pet bearded dragon lizard, Lily.
Irkena lives in Kenya with his mother, in a temporary homestead encircled by a strong thorn enclosure to protect the family’s livestock. He belongs to the Rendille tribe, who live a semi-nomadic life in the harsh regions of the Kaisut Desert. Irkena is now 14 years old and must be circumcised before leaving the community manyatta (settlement). Irkena will then become a morani (young warrior), and live in the bush with other warriors. During the month before he is circumcised, Irkena kills as many birds as possible with his handmade catapult, and hangs the corpses round his head as a status symbol, signifying his maturity and skill at hunting.
Maria lives in Mexico City with her parents and older sister. Their home has three stories and is set around a courtyard, behind security gates. The family has taken security very seriously ever since one of her cousins was kidnapped by a gang. Maria is 12 years old and attends a private school. Maria enjoys socializing with her friends at school but does not like working hard. Her hobbies include all types of dance—tap, ballet, Irish—but she would like to be a professional jazz dancer one day. Maria has two stereos, an iPod, a cellphone and her own private doorbell outside her room.
Ten-year-old Lewis lives with his parents and sister in a semi-detached house on the outskirts of Barnsley, in Yorkshire, England. He has been given an ASBO (Anti-Social Behaviour Order). This means he is banned from going out at night, and must not possess drugs, alcohol, knives, or even a screwdriver. Lewis has Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder and has also been diagnosed with schizophrenia. His aggressive behaviour has led to his being excluded from his special school seven times. Lewis has felt happier since taking his medication but resents his curfew because he misses playing outside in the street with his friends.
Alyssa lives with her parents in Kentucky. She is an only child but her grandmother, uncle, and orphaned cousin live close by. Their small, shabby house, heated only by a wooden stove, is falling apart. The ceiling in Alyssa’s bedroom is beginning to cave in. The family would like to buy a trailer if they could afford it. Alyssa’s mother works at McDonald’s and her father works at Walmart; everything they earn goes toward bringing up their daughter.
More photos here.