Children all over the world live and sleep in very different environments. It is my hope that these photographs will help children, and adults, to think about inequality, within and between societies around the globe, and perhaps to start to figure out how, in their own lives, they may respond.
When Fabrica (Benetton’s creative research center) asked me to come up with an idea for engaging with children’s rights, 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 — my bedroom was my personal kingdom. 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.
From the start of this project, I didn’t want it just to be about ‘needy children’ living in the developing world, but rather something more inclusive, about children from all types of situations.
It seemed to make sense to photograph the children themselves, too, but separately from their bedrooms, using a neutral background. My thinking was that the bedroom pictures would be inscribed with the children’s material and cultural circumstances — the details that inevitably mark people apart from each other — while the children themselves would appear in the set of portraits as individuals, as equals... just as children.
To begin with, I initially called the project ‘Bedrooms’, but I soon realized that my own experience of having a ‘bedroom’ simply doesn’t apply to so many kids. Millions of families around the world sleep together in one room, and millions of children sleep in a space of convenience, rather than a place they can in any sense call their room.
I came to appreciate just how privileged I had been as a child, to have had a personal kingdom in which to sleep and to grow.
For me, the project became a vehicle to think about issues of poverty and wealth, about the relationship of children to personal possessions, and the power of children — or lack of it — to make decisions about their lives.
However, this photo essay is not a campaign. There’s nothing scientific about the selection of children featured: I travelled where I could, often alongside other projects, and many of the pictures result from chance encounters, following my photographer’s nose. I am not qualified to give anyone a lecture on the state of childhood today, or the future of children’s rights. Although I have relied on the help of Save the Children, Italy, there is no agenda to the project other than my own journey and curiosity, and wanting to share in pictures and words the stories that I found interesting, or that moved me.
In the end, I hope these pictures and stories speak to children. So that lucky children (like I was) may better appreciate what they have.
But more than that, I hope these photographs will help children think about inequality, within and between societies around the world, and perhaps start to figure out how, in their own lives, they may respond.
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Below you can meet twenty-five of the children whose stories and portraits are featured in my final book Where Children Sleep.
Lay Lay, 4 years old
Mae Sot, Thailand
Lay Lay is four 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 twenty-one 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 forty per cent of the Burmese population. Lay Lay and her mother fled from the brutal Burmese military dictatorship and arrived in Thailand as refugees.
Jasmine, 4 years old
Jasmine prefers to be called by her nickname, Jazzy. She 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 which she has won in ‘child pageants’. She is only four 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.
4 years old
Home for this four-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 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, earning thirty to fifty cents a time. No one from the boy’s family has ever been to school. His parents cannot read or write.
Jivan, 4 years old
Brooklyn, New York
Jivan is four years old. He lives with his parents in a skyscraper in Brooklyn, New York. From his bedroom window, he can see across the East River to New York’s Manhattan Island and the Williamsburg Suspension Bridge which connects it to Brooklyn. Jivan has his own bedroom with an en-suite bathroom and a toy cupboard. The room was designed by Jivan’s mother, who is an interior designer. His father is a DJ and music producer. Jivan’s school is only ten minutes’ walk away.
To gain a place at this school, Jivan had to take a test to prove that he can mix socially with other children. He found this quite stressful as he is a very shy boy. His parents were also interviewed before he was accepted by the school. Jivan’s favorite foods are steak and chocolate. He would like to be a fireman when he grows up.
Kaya, 4 years old
Kaya is four years old. She lives with her parents in a small apartment in Tokyo, Japan. Most apartments in Japan are small because land is very expensive to buy and there is such a large population to accommodate. Kaya’s bedroom is every little girl’s dream. It is lined from floor to ceiling with clothes and dolls.
Kaya’s mother makes all Kaya’s dresses — up to three a month, usually. Now Kaya has thirty dresses and coats, thirty pairs of shoes, sandals and boots, and numerous wigs. (The pigtails in the picture are made from hairpieces.) Her friends love to come round to try on her clothes.
When she goes to school, however, she has to wear a school uniform. Her favorite foods are meat, potatoes, strawberries and peaches. She wants to be a cartoonist when she grows up, drawing Japanese ‘anime’ cartoons.
Lehlohonolo, 6 years old
Lehlohonolo is six years old. He and his three 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 sixteen-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 eight kilometers 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, 7 years old
Indira 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 is seven years old and has worked at the local granite quarry since she was just three. 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 five or six 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 thirty minutes’ 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.
Tristan, 7 years old
Manhattan, New York
Tristan is seven years old and is an only child. His mother is a film maker, and his father is a pop cultural writer. They live in a small apartment in Manhattan, New York. They also own a beach house in New Jersey where they go for their summer holiday.
Tristan attends an Eco-School, a state school run on environmental principles, just ten minutes’ walk from his apartment. Here, there are no religious holidays — only the solstices and equinoxes are celebrated. Tristan had to pass several tests before he was accepted at the school, and his parents were also interviewed.
This was the tenth school he had applied to. Competition for school places is fierce in New York. He enjoys school but does not like being told to clean up after lunch. Tristan’s favorite food is bacon, and he has pizza every weekend. He has an unusual ambition for when he grows up — to be a creator of marmalade.
Roathy, 8 years old
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Roathy is eight years old. He lives on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. His home sits on a huge rubbish dump which is swarming with flies. They re-use whatever they can find. Roathy’s mattress, for instance, is made from old tires. The air is thick with the stench of decomposing waste, and the ground underfoot is soft and springy — one wrong step and it gives way to a poisonous black liquid. Five thousand people live and work and pay rent here.
At six o’clock every morning, Roathy and hundreds of other children are given a shower and some breakfast at a local charity centre before they start work, scavenging through the rubbish for cans and plastic bottles which are sold to a recycling company. Breakfast is often the only meal of the day. On one occasion, Roathy’s family suffered food poisoning after eating a chicken which his brother had found on the dump.
Ahkôhxet, 8 years old
Ahkôhxet is eight 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.
Alyssa, 8 years old
Alyssa lives with her parents in Kentucky, USA. 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.
Alex, 9 years old
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Alex is nine years old. He lives in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He does not go to school but spends his time begging on the city streets. He has found that the only way he can survive is to beg or steal.
He admits that he sometimes steals from old people or from drivers waiting at traffic lights. As the drivers lean their arm on the window, Alex snatches the watch from their wrists. He is addicted to sniffing glue.
Most of the time he sleeps outside, on an empty bench or discarded sofa if he can find one — otherwise on the pavement. Alex is still in touch with his family, and occasionally goes to see them to share a meal.
Jaime, 9 years old
Fifth Avenue, New York
Jaime is nine 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.
9 years old
This nine-year-old boy is a refugee from war in Liberia, in western Africa, and goes to a school for ex-child soldiers in Ivory Coast. His name remains a secret in order to protect his identity. If it is revealed, his life could be at risk.
Thousands of young children — many of them orphans — were recruited as soldiers to fight in the violent civil war in Liberia. They were tempted to become soldiers by promises of money, food and clothing. These child soldiers were then moved around the country during the conflict, causing them to lose track of their home villages. They became displaced.
This boy is an orphan and has three brothers. He now lives in a concrete shack alongside other pupils from his school. His favorite food is rice with tomato, meat and fish ground up together. He likes football and would like to be a teacher when he is older.
Samantha, 9 years old
Long Island, New York
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 — the highest level — in karate. She has been world champion three times.
She first became interested at the age of three, when she saw a television advert featuring karate. She pestered her parents to let her learn and took her first lesson when she was four. She has now been in two adverts and a short film, and her bedroom is full of trophies she has won in competitions.
Samantha’s school is one mile away. Her mother takes her by car each morning so that she can have an extra few minutes’ rest in bed. 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.
Tzvika, 9 years old
Beitar Illit, West Bank
Tzvika is nine years old and lives in Beitar Illit, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. It is a gated community of thirty-six thousand 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 nine children, but Tzvika has just one sister and two 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 two-minute drive away.
Religion is the most important subject, followed by Hebrew and maths. 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, 10 years old
Hebron, West Bank
Douha lives with her parents and eleven siblings in a Palestinian refugee camp in Hebron, in the West Bank. She is ten years old and shares a room with all five of her sisters. The family diet mostly consists of green beans, meat, rice and lentil soup.
Douha attends a school which is ten minutes’ walk away. She works hard because she wants to be a pediatrician 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 twenty-three 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 Mohammed on her bedroom wall.
Sherap, 10 years old
Sherap is ten years old. He lives in a beautiful Tibetan monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal, and shares a room with seventy-nine other boys training to be monks. The boys all sleep in bunk beds and have very few personal possessions.
Sherap’s parents sent him here because it is believed that good luck comes to families who offer a son to the monastery. It also means they have one less mouth to feed.
Sherap has a long day. He gets up at 5.30 am to study, and finishes the day with an hour of chanting at 9 pm. He usually eats dhal bhat (rice and lentil soup), thukpa (noodle soup) and roti (flat bread). He admires his teacher and would like to be a kempo martial arts teacher one day, but first he must finish school and then study privately for three years and two months.
Thais, 11 years old
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Thais is eleven years old and lives with her parents and sister on the third floor of a block of flats in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. There are two bedrooms in the flat, so Thais has to share her room with her sister.
They live in the Cidade de Deus (‘City of God’) neighborhood in the western zone of Rio de Janeiro. It used to be a poverty-stricken, crime-ridden area, dominated by gang rivalry and drug abuse, but the 2002 film City of God, which was set in the neighborhood, inspired major improvements. It is now a much safer place to live.
Thais’s parents are not well off but are able to support their family reasonably well. Thais is a great fan of Felipe Dylon, a Brazilian pop singer. She has his posters all over her bedroom wall. She also admires the Brazilian model and actress, Gisele Bündchen, who is thought to be the highest paid model in the world. Thais would like to be a model when she grows up or, alternatively, a pediatrician.
Netu, 11 years old
Netu lives in Kathmandu, Nepal, in an area known as ‘Beggars’ City’. She used to live in India with her parents, four sisters and brother. Her parents were unable to support the family and there was not enough food to survive, so they had to send Netu, the eldest, away to live with her aunt. They had hoped for better prospects for their daughter. They spent one week’s salary on the bus fare for Netu to travel to Kathmandu. The journey took three days.
Netu is eleven years old and now has to beg for money on the city’s streets. It is only the tourists who are willing to donate anything and often she goes home with nothing.
Her home is a plastic sheeted shack. The room measures four meters by six meters and contains two beds. Four people sleep in one bed, three in the other, and four people sleep on the floor.
Joey, 11 years old
Joey lives in Kentucky, USA, with his parents and older sister. He is eleven years old. 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.
Lamine, 12 years old
Lamine is twelve years old and lives in a village in Senegal, western Africa. He is a pupil at the village Koranic school, where no girls are allowed. He shares a room with several other boys from the school.
The beds are very basic and uncomfortable, some supported by bricks for legs. At six o’clock every morning, the boys begin work on the school farm. Depending on the season of the year, they are taught digging, harvesting maize or how to plough the fields using donkeys. In the afternoon, they study the Koran, the holy book from which Islam is derived, learning to recite its verses from wooden tablets. They have the same teacher for all their lessons.
Lamine enjoys school but finds the farming lessons hard work and very hot. In his free time, he likes to play football with his friends. When Lamine grows up he would like to be a teacher.
Ryan, 13 years old
Ryan normally lives with his parents and two sisters in Pennsylvania, USA, but is currently staying at a school for obese children aged eleven to sixteen. Ryan is thirteen years old.
When he was nine, he was found to have a brain tumour. As a result, he now suffers from ‘Prader-Willi Syndrome’, an inherited condition that causes Ryan to have an insatiable appetite. This led Ryan to gain a lot of weight, but since attending the school, he has lost nine kilos. He is determined to lose as much weight as possible so that he can play baseball with his friends again.
Meal times are becoming easier for him because the school provides healthy versions of pizza and spaghetti alongside unlimited amounts of low-calorie foods such as soup, fruit and vegetables. This means he is not always as hungry as he used to be at home. All students have to take ten thousand steps per day.
Ryan would like to be a doctor when he grows up, in gratitude to the medical profession for helping him through his illnesses.
Erlen, 14 years old
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Erlen is fourteen years old and is pregnant for the third time. She lives in a favela (slum) 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 twelve 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.
The Brazilian government is concerned at the increase in teenage pregnancies despite its efforts to promote contraception. Abortion is illegal and can result in a three year prison sentence. It is also very dangerous — one in five women die while having abortions in illegal back-street clinics. Erlen would like to be a vet when she is older, and to live somewhere else.
Nantio, 15 years old
Nantio is fifteen years old and 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 household 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. Nantio’s status in life can be seen by the number of necklaces she wears and whether she also wears a white band, indicating that she has a boyfriend or that her menstrual cycles have begun.
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You can explore many other children’s stories and photographs, from all over the world, in my book Where Children Sleep.
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MAPTIA
Kenyan-born, English-raised, Venice-based documentary photographer, jamesmollison.com