Your Camera is Not a Toy: Photographing “Children From Around the World”

In 1995 Dorling Kinderlsey published a book, Children Just Like Us, sponsored by UNICEF, which brought pictures of children from “all over the world” into its pages, complete with facts and apparently direct quotations from the children (who all seem to speak perfect English). The book feels friendly, ecumenical: children certainly have some funny habits and names, but underneath, of course, they are all alike!  What effects do these kind of books, which make faraway places and different cultures specularly available to middle-class children, have on the young minds who read them. Do they inform a harmlessly cosmopolitan, global outlook? Or ambitions to travel, to see and know the world as benevolently different as it was promised? Is there another perspective hidden within, which involves a dangerous sense of moral and intellectual superiority? The cause of these thoughts are a photo-series of children with their toys, by an Italian photographer, Gabriele Galimberti.

“Every time he flew to some place foreign for his work, he’d find a local family and children happy to show him some of their favorite toys.” (PRI’s The World)

It sounds like happy work, traveling and taking photos of happy children with the happy consent of their happy families; Journalists have been eager to write about this work – so colourful and positive but also serious and thought-provoking – and many use the opportunity to reflect uncritically on their own childhood possessions.

In the most recent (and probably most shared) Feature Shoot post on Galimberti’s photographs (that’s him with his favorite toys all neatly laid out in the photo above), the leading image is that of a young child named Chiwa from Mchinji in Malawi.

I don’t want to describe the image – which takes its aesthetic of deprivation from charities and development organizations. Suffice to say, it’s the image at the top of this post. What seems more important is questioning the motivations and effects that this series – and the countless others like it, by photojournalists, trawling the world’s surface for their wage labour – has on its viewers and its subjects.

The knee-jerk response to these concerns says that representations like these have positive, moral benefits: we become more aware of the lives of others in this world which we can’t help – thanks to environmental crises, trade, war, etc. – but share with everyone else in it, that this awareness, of complicity, is heightened by photographic representations of other places. That forgets the importance of attending to how these representations are made – and in whose interests they are used.

Let’s look carefully at the Feature Shoot article:

‘Galimberti explores the universality of being a kid amidst the diversity of the countless corners of the world; saying, “at their age, they are pretty all much the same; they just want to play.”’

The colloquial “universality of being a kid” is, of course, the journalist’s own journalistic prose, and the photographer can’t be held responsible for any inability or unwillingness to consider the complex problems of thinking ‘universality’. A piece on the series from The Times magazine rehearses the same platitudes about how toys tell you “everything you need to know about the universe kids inhabit”. The problem here is not ‘diversity’, but – just like the Dorling Kindersley book – assertions of similarity. They’re all just kids, right?

What is so persistently troubling about the kind of photojournalism which wins hearts and competitions from global and cosmopolitan bodies is that the projects which win are frequently disguised by a kind of pseudo-anthropological discourse. See here, again from Feature Shoot:

“Galimberti found that children in richer countries were more possessive with their toys and that it took time before they allowed him to play with them (which is what he would do pre-shoot before arranging the toys), whereas in poorer countries he found it much easier to quickly interact, even if there were just two or three toys between them.”

It is important to note that the photographer himself arranged the toys. Forgetting the mountains of material by psychoanalysts or anthropologists which says that the person (or people) who are the subject of study should be approached on their own terms. Here the photographer arranges the toys, and the child, for the most perfect composition. James Mollison’s recent series on childrens rights, Where Children Sleep, and Mary Beth Meehan’s images of undocumented migrants, are both bodies of work which demonstrate a carefulness in encountering the photographic subject which is absent in these confrontations.

If some of the children know what to do for the camera and are smiling, the ones who look mournful or uncertain at why this strange man is pointing something at them, their toys – objects of intimate relations, critical to infantile development – placed in strange new formations. The resistance to the photographer’s intentions, his invasion of private space, is the most valuable accident of this project, and the real source of difference.

What real difference is this series making manifest? The journalist recalls that the photographer recalls something vague about what the children did, making distinctions between rich countries and poor countries (which is, perhaps, forgetting that there are poor kids in rich countries, or vice versa).

“There were similarites too, especially in the functional and protective powers the toys represented for their proud owners. Across borders, the toys were reflective of the world each child was born into—economic status and daily life affecting the types of toys children found interest in. Toy Stories doesn’t just appeal in its cheerful demeanor, but it really becomes quite the anthropological study.” (Feature Shoot)

Quite the anthropological study! This phrase is exactly what a parent might patronisingly have said on finding their child looking at the Dorling Kindersley book. In this instance it is appropriately patronising: anthropology as a professional discipline has rigorous and necessary ways of working with the problems of inter-cultural encounters, of thinking universally about education and commodification, subjectivity and difference, photojournalism like this seems governed by misguided and dangerous good intentions.

These images of unsmiling children, looking back at the strange man who has entered into the private space of their fragile and critical object relations, remind us that the moralising gaze of the camera is not a disinterested thing, and the necessity of working to discover whose interests these cameras serve. What the photographer ultimately found was a mirror to his own experience: telling the Times, “It was nice to go back to my childhood somehow.” This is a sad vision of adulthood, if you have to point a camera at a child when what you really want to do is play with them.

32 thoughts on “Your Camera is Not a Toy: Photographing “Children From Around the World”

    • “”the photographer himself arranged the toys… “”I find that the strength of these images comes from this choice, it allow to create the appropriate boundaries between the viewers and the subject, despite this ‘gap’ there is still a strong connection with the subject,not an intrusive one, but a dignified one, it allow the image to split the weight between the two subjects: the toys and the child. Empowering the child to free himself from judgments. For once they are portrait with dignity.

  1. Thanks for your thoughts, Orlando. I had been unsettled when I saw this earlier and wasn’t able to figure out why. You’ve covered it.

  2. So everyone should be an academic? Why not take a photographic project at face value, and judge it for what it can do, rather than criticising it for not living up to the expectations, in terms of its critical and self-reflexive approach, of an anthropological dissertation? Yes, some people use the term “anthropological” or “study” laxly, so what? It would be worthwhile to acknowledge that images like these are seen by many more people than obscure academic papers. Countless people shared these images on facebook and elsewhere, but no more than 4 people read my dissertation. Surely, documentary photography can transmit problematic messages and the approaches socially engaged photographers take can always be improved. But their work should be measured with a different yardstick, paying attention to what they *can* do within their medium, because it is a powerful one.

    • @ expertista: I don’t mean to suggest that academic discipline is the only way to ensure that photographs do not represent an intrusive and sensational practice. I’m not saying that psychoanalysts or anthropologists always get it right – (did you seen this?) However, over the last hundred or so years, a number of different disciplines have developed ways of thinking carefully about the subject of study, and these photographs suggest an indifference to those traditions of thought which might have helped the photographer reconsider what he wanted to do.

    • What are some of these traditions that you speak of – in a simplified sentence or two that speaks directly to application? (Actually I’d really appreciate seeing that as the subject of a new post!) Adding to @expertista, I’ve found that the high pedestal from which academia scrutinizes all other participants/agents working to bridge firstworld/thirdworld divides (Global North/South, however you name it) has had crippling effects on my peers and I who want to get our hands dirty and make change happen. What’s the alternative? How else could photojournalists represent children in developing countries without feeding into this voyeuristic venture? Because not having photojournalists (and others like them) would mean young people in the West being completely ignorant of affairs outside of their own comfort.

    • @ expertista: I think you bring up some good points. Photos are, in fact, seen and shared way more than than any academic dissertation- that is exactly the point and reason why these photographs, any documentary photography, should be as true to the subject matter as possible, and not a a brand signature spanning the globe.

      I think Mr. Reade was very much “paying attention to what they *can* do within their medium, because it is a powerful one.” More than most, for sure- which is why he was able to go beyond the superficial feel good, and not only criticize (constructively) but offer much needed alternatives.

  3. I understand your points but I think you are being overly critical.

    “This is a sad vision of adulthood where you have to point a camera at a child if all you really want to do is play with them.” – you can do both. If you are an artist/photographer then what you see inspires you to make work. I would applaud him for getting off his bum and meeting people around the world – pictures or not. Personally I don’t think the photographs are that compelling but I don’t think what he did was exploitative – especially when you put it in the context of some of the work out there.

    If everyone were to always worry about the social implications of the art that they make – they wouldn’t be making much art. I would rather have a world with controversial art than a bunch of wafflers worried about offending people – especially when the work – like this – I think is obviously striving to create a unifying thread and not even trying to piss people off.

  4. Way too harsh! I simply cannot agree. Good intentions, but too far the other way. Some stories MUST be told, and what better way pof doing so that using a camera.Whether by seeing the story through a lens will be discomfiting, or annoying, or both, it doesn’t make the act of story telling any more illegitimate, intrusive, or a ‘fetish’. The theoretical appendages attached to such stories is a different matter. In my view, its not that important. Also, it depends who the audience is, and some audiences may be more ready to give their time, if its relevant to their field…i know we can argue this point forever, but one might also say its unnecessary icing:- Intellectualising what is simple and straightforward. But it may serve a purpose – so i wouldn’t dismiss it altogether.
    However, the bottom line is some stories must be told and a picture paints a thousand words. Whether the interpretation of one differs from another’s – thats for each one of us (and our conscience) to decide, it doesn’t affect the central story / picture – whether contrived or not.

    • Yes, some stories must be told- but it’s all in the telling. Is the story teller open to new experiences, new ways of interpreting, new ways of dealing with cultures he is only visiting on the run? Or are they homogenizing everything into a previsualized package ready for mass consumption? No one is saying this photographer is an evil person, but these purposely arranged photos are clearly as much about him as they are about their subjects.

      Yes, a picture can paint a thousand words- it is therefore important to compose and edit carefully, and provide the proper content and context to remain as true to the subject matter as possible.

      • So essentially what you are saying is the photographer should have either said to the child,” get your best toys and play with them, I’ll take a picture”, or “lets play with your toys (and get someone else totake the picture)”? [ which would have thrown up other difficulties]. In addition to not calling the “art” what strictly speaking it’s not?

      • my god! with all the evil and the lack of beauty we see around shall we condemn Galimberti’s project? these images never had the intention of being pretentious, and I am sure they are a wonderful record for the children and their family, or do we have to portraits blood and abuse all the time?

    • For the record, I happen to like the photographs for what they are- well balanced compositions, totally arranged and directed by the photographer with little input from the subject. What I am saying (had he wanted a more nuanced and informative essay), he could have incorporated a slightly more collaborative effort- asking the child to arrange the toys themselves, or photographing how they interacted with them at their own leisure, instead of requesting a command performance.

    • Thanks Moctar: I think there is an assumption – which sangwani & peter & L.V. Wells seem to ascribe to – that the camera serves the interests of its subject (in this case, the children). What this work illustrates is that the camera serves the interests of the photographer to the detriment of the subject.

      Recently Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin (link below) have been making work which thinks in similar directions, on the racism of photographic technologies (though I do not hold these photographers as exemplary). There are many other examples, which must include the work of countless, nameless, non-professional photographers, camera-phone amateurs and witnesses.

      It would be valuable to imagine a photography which served the particular interests of no single person, which exposes the unquestioning investment in art or story-telling, in the moral deficiency of desiring “to get our hands dirty”, the idea of representation-for-representation’s sake.

      The article mentions Mollinson & Meehan as two photographers who are making photography which refuses to objectify or do the work of identification, preferring to labour in solidarity with the subject.

      It would be valuable to hear your thoughts on other work which is thinking in these directions.

      • No – Orlando – I do not believe that the camera always serves the interests of its subject and it’s offensive that you would assume me to be that naive from your comment. It seems like you brush off my notions as completely off base. This is a field in which I have much experience (no I have never photographed in Africa but I was a photographer and am still involved in media) and it’s funny how easily people will jump to criticize work without really knowing what it takes to make it or what the intentions behind it are.

        Most of the time the camera does serve the interests of the photographer. Like a paintbrush does a painter, and clay a ceramicist. That doesn’t make it wrong. No acts of art are truly selfless acts as they often require great time, effort and financial sacrifice and are only borne out of an innate need to create. That’s indulging in a selfish whim, sure, but the result, if good, will often transcend that. And for those calling this photojournalism, it is not that and should not be taken as that. It is important for the viewer to understand that these are constructed photographs but the visual language that is consistent through the series pretty much lets you know that and I would argue that the photographer is actually pretty transparent about this.

        I understand the complexities of this situation but I think you need to understand that in the end you seem to be making a reason that this sort of work should not exist. I just do not see objectification in this work. I see a photographer trying to unite different ideas and cultures. What is wrong in trying to assert that as a human race there are things we all share? I guess some people are quite uncomfortable with that idea…

        We can all see what we want to I suppose but just because you find something disconcerting that doesn’t mean it automatically sets a troubling precedent.

        To be sure – there is other work out there that very much panders and I think would be well worth your criticism, but I think this is a bad choice to unleash your concerns regarding this topic. And I don’t even think it’s very good or interesting work.

  5. Reblogged this on Parachute Open and commented:
    This is a very thoughtful post on the dangers of careless and overly simplistic photojournalism. An amateur photographer myself, it is a good reminder to think carefully about the way in which we interact with our subjects, what story we are telling, and whom we are telling it for.

    • if this is the case, good ! there will be just few photographer in the world, and I wish less critics as well, which they are less useful then photographers.

  6. 200 words too long. Lost track of the point of this piece somewhere around the tenth paragraph. The longer it takes, the weaker the argument. Wonder how many of those agreeing are photographers?

  7. Aesthetic of deprivation.

    you people are so fn disconnected from what you’re writing about. get out and work with communities in sub saharan Africa for a while…. “aesthetic of deprivation.” smfh

  8. this is the stupidest most navel gazing article ive ever seen. it seems like it’s YOU who’s establishing a gulf of distance here, and for your own purposes, which is kind of the pith essence of what’s so problematic with most African coverage.

    they’re kids. with toys. every kid is going to be perplexed by having a camera put in their face, and the way you’re treating them — as anthropological ‘subjects’ to be painstakingly intellectualized before you communicate with them — is actually about as ‘othering’ as you can get. im not sure what the overall message of the photo essay is either, but i do like that they’re not being portrayed as miserable, close-to-death wretches who would benefit from any kind of self interested private sector ‘intervention,’ but i think you need to get off of that pedestal you’ve made out of academic books and think a little more straightforwardly here. i’m all for context, but what exactly are you trying to get across here?

    sometimes Africa is a Country is really ridiculous. i feel like you people sit in your little AC offices and London coffee shops, combing the world for some grandstanding, self righteous point you can make, cheaply, when the fact is it feels like most of you don’t actually spend a lot of time here and interact with the people whose interests you claim you’re defending. remember that this is one of the key points here: the production of knowledge about people who cannot speak for themselves, whether you’re trying to be in their interests or not, is the exact recipe for Othering people…in this case Africans. i know you want to swing a sword for the subaltern, but this is really absurd, do you really think rural Africans are so out of touch that they dont understand what’s going on when a photographer visits them? where I work in Liberia, when people don’t want their picture taken, they say no. give them their agency and stop pretending these people are ‘subjects’ and not actors with volition and circumstantial awareness, it’s not 1925 anymore.

    • i wanted to say that i got a little too heated but i just looked at those pictures again. you’re out of your mind on this one, you really wrote a shots fired post about the fact that the kids didn’t arrange the toys on their own? can you imagine…

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