Photographer James Mollison was born in Kenya, raised in England, and now lives in Italy — so his work has a global perspective. When he was asked to shoot a project about children’s rights, he immediately thought of that one place where kids feel some ownership: their bedroom.
“I found myself thinking about my bedroom: how significant it was during my childhood, and how it reflected what I had and who I was. It occurred to me that a way to address some of the complex situations and social issues affecting children would be to look at the bedrooms of children in all kinds of different circumstances,” he says.
The photos below are a few of Mollison’s diptychs and quotes from “Where Children Sleep,” the photo essay that documents his time with kids from Thailand to Kentucky. These children come from every social situation: wealthy to impoverished; political refugees to pageant winners; off-the-grid and in the middle of a war zone. Something to think about the next time your kid complains about their own room.
“Lay Lay is 4 years old. The cream she has on her face is made from the bark of the thanaka tree, used to condition and protect the skin. Lay Lay lives in Mae Sot, Thailand, close to the border with Burma. When her mother died, no other members of her family came to claim her, so she was placed in an orphanage. She shares this home with 21 other nursery-aged children. The orphanage consists of two rooms. During the day, one room is the classroom and the other is a dining room. At night, these rooms become bedrooms. The tables are pushed to one side and mats are rolled out for the children to sleep on. Each child has one drawer in which to keep their belongings. Lay Lay does not have many belongings — just a few clothes. All that is known of her background is that she is from an ethnic group of people called the Karen, one of the persecuted minority ethnic groups which make up about 40 percent of the Burmese population. Lay Lay and her mother fled from the brutal Burmese military dictatorship and arrived in Thailand as refugees.”
“Jasmine prefers to be called by her nickname, Jazzy. She lives in a big house in Kentucky with her parents and 3 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 4 years old and has already entered over a hundred of these competitions. Her spare time is completely taken up with preparation and rehearsal. She practices 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.”
“Home for this 4-year-old 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 on the streets for enough money to pay for their tickets (100 Euro per adult and 80 per child). When they first arrived in Rome, they camped in a tent, but the police threw them off the site because they were trespassing on private land and did not have the correct documents. Now the family sleeps together on the mattress in the open. When it rains, they hastily erect a tent and use umbrellas for shelter, hoping they will not be spotted by the police. They left Romania without identity documents or work papers and so are unable to obtain legal employment. This boy sits by the curbside while his parents clean car windscreens at traffic lights, to earn 30 to 50 cents at a time. No one from the boy’s family has ever been to school. His parents cannot read or write.”
“Five-year-old Shameela lives in Mae Sot, Thailand, with her mother and 3 older siblings. Their home is a leaky one-roomed shack built alongside other huts in the middle of a swamp in the jungle. They share a toilet with about one hundred other people in the village. Shameela’s mother fled to Thailand from Burma to escape the harsh military regime. She cannot get a permit to work so she does any odd jobs she can to support her family. They cannot afford to eat meat but have fish twice a week. Shameela was born in Thailand but as the daughter of an asylum seeker, she is not considered to be a Thai citizen, nor is she considered to be a Burmese citizen as she was not born in Burma. Children like Shameela are therefore stateless, with no official nationality. She is the only one in her family to go to school. She would like to be a nurse when she grows up.”
“Bilal is 6 years old. His family are Bedouin Arabs living beside an Israeli settlement at Wadi Abu Hindi, in the West Bank. Their home is a one-room shack which they built themselves. The government of Israel has control in this area and has already knocked down their first home because they did not have permission to build it. They are fearful that this will happen to their new home. During the summer, the family sleep outside on a carpet, but in winter they sleep inside. Traditionally, the Bedouin people are nomads, but many have been forced to settle because Israeli restrictions prevent their nomadic travels. Their diet consists mostly of rice and yogurt. Bilal’s family own 15 goats, whose milk is used to make the yogurt. Once a week they might also eat meat with their rice. Water is delivered in a water truck from which they are allowed to take 2 litres a day. Bilal does not go to school yet, but helps to look after the goats.”
“Lehlohonolo is 6 years old. He and his 3 brothers live in Lesotho, in southern Africa. The boys are orphans — their father died from AIDS some years ago and they have not heard from their mother since she went away in search of work. It is likely that she also died from an AIDS-related illness. It is quite common in Lesotho for mothers and fathers to die as a result of AIDS, and there are growing numbers of orphans. Lehlohonolo’s 16-year-old brother is responsible for looking after the family. The boys live in a mud hut where they sleep together on the floor, cuddling up to each other for warmth during the freezing cold nights. Two of Lehlohonolo’s brothers go to a school 8 kilometres away where they are also given monthly rations of food —cereal, pulses and oil. They cannot 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.”
“Indira lives with her parents, brother and sister near Kathmandu in Nepal. Her house has only one room, with one bed and a mattress. At bedtime, the children share the mattress on the floor. Indira is 7 years old and has worked at the local granite quarry since she was 3. The family is very poor so everyone has to work. There are 150 other children working at the quarry, some of whom will lose their sight because they do not have goggles to protect their eyes from stone splinters. Indira works 5 or 6 hours a day and then helps her mother with household chores such as cleaning and cooking. Her favorite food is noodles. She also attends school, which is a 30-minute walk away. She does not mind working at the quarry but would prefer to be playing. She would like to be a Nepalese dancer when she grows up.”
“Alyssa lives with her parents in Kentucky. She is an only child but her grandmother, uncle and orphaned cousin live close by. It is a beautiful, mountainous region known as Appalachia, but one of the poorest parts of America. 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 caravan instead, if they could afford it. Alyssa’s mother works at McDonald’s and her father works at Walmart, and everything they earn goes towards bringing up their daughter. She is lucky that her parents have jobs, even though they earn very little. Many local families are unemployed and have to rely on charity. There is a huge problem with drug misuse in the area, and two of Alyssa’s relatives have already died from drug- related problems.”
“Ahkôhxet is 8 years old and a member of the Kraho tribe, who live in the basin of the river Amazon, in Brazil. There are only 1,900 members of the tribe. The Kraho people believe that the sun and moon were creators of the universe, and they engage in rituals that are many centuries old. The red paint on Ahkôhxet’s chest is from one of his tribe’s rituals. The elders teach Ahkôhxet’s generation to respect nature and their surroundings. Their huts are arranged in a circle, leaving space in the middle for gatherings and ceremonies to take place. The nearby river provides water for drinking and washing. The tribe grow half their food in the poor soil using basic tools. They also hunt. The rest of their food is bought using money earned from film crews and photographers who visit their camp. There is one car, shared between the whole tribe.”
“Jaime is 9 years old. He lives in a top-floor apartment on Fifth Avenue in New York. His parents also own luxury homes in Spain and in the Hamptons on Long Island. He has a younger brother and sister who are twins. Places at Jaime’s school are greatly sought after, even though the fees are very high. Jaime had to pass several tests before he was accepted. He is doing very well at his studies and particularly enjoys computer class, spelling and woodwork, but not geometry. He has an hour’s homework each night and often finds it hard to fit this in with his other after-school activities. Wednesdays are particularly busy as he has judo and swimming lessons. In his spare time, apart from playing the cello and kickball, Jaime likes to study his finances on the Citibank website. When he grows up, he would like to be a lawyer like his father.”
“Tzvika is 9 years old and lives in Beitar Illit, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. It is a gated community of 36,000 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 9 children, but Tzvika has just one sister and 2 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 2-minute drive away. Religion is the most important subject, followed by Hebrew and math. 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 favorite food is schnitzel and chips.”
“Douha lives with her parents and 11 siblings in a Palestinian refugee camp in Hebron, in the West Bank. She is 10 years old and shares a room with all 5 of her sisters. The family diet mostly consists of green beans, meat, rice and lentil soup. Douha attends a school which is 10 minutes away. She works hard because she wants to be a paediatrician when she grows up. Douha’s life has been severely affected by the conflict between Palestine and Israel. Her grandparents fled from their village in 1948, when Israel took over their land, and Douha’s family has lived in refugee camps ever since. Douha was born in a refugee camp, and there has always been violence around her. Her brother Mohammed killed himself and 23 civilians in a suicide-bomb attack against the Israelis in 1996. Although no one in her family knew what Mohammed was planning, the whole family was punished for it: immediately after the bombing, the family home — including all their possessions — was destroyed by the Israeli military. Douha has a poster of her brother on her bedroom wall.”
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