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Shohei Elementary School, Tokyo. Due to the scarcity and high cost of land in Tokyo, the schools’ playground was constructed on the roof, above the sixth-floor classrooms. There is a retractable roof that plays music when it closes. There is also a gym, swimming pool, and library. The school cost seven billion yen, or U.S. $60 million, to build. James Mollison
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Aida Boys School, Bethlehem, West Bank. The Aida Refugee camp was set up in 1950 by the United Nations Relief Agency for Palestinians displaced from villages within Israel, and the school was built shortly afterward. The front line between Israelis and Palestinians during the First Intifada (1987–91) fell close to the school, and its walls were thickened to protect its students against bullets. Whenever hostilities flare up with the Israelis, the air fills with tear gas and the headmaster sends everyone home. James Mollison
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Valley View School, Mathare, Nairobi, Kenya. Valley View primarily serves the population of the Mathare slum. This encampment of three square miles is home to 600,000 people. Attendance has greatly improved since the World Food Programme started providing meals for students in 2005. Children are allowed to carry food home to share with their parents. James Mollison
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Hull Trinity House School, Hull, UK. This school was founded in 1787 to educate boys for seafaring careers. Before sending its pupils out into the world, the brethren of Hull Trinity House would provide them with a special dinner as well as two oranges, to help protect against scurvy. Today, students no longer go from school to sea, but the Dinner Day tradition survives. James Mollison
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Dechen Phodrang, Thimphu, Bhutan. Living conditions at the monastery are rudimentary; the children sleep on mats on the floors of the drafty study rooms. Respiratory infections, lice, and scabies are common, and the monastery struggles to provide basic sanitation facilities and adequate food for the boys. James Mollison
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Holtz High School, Tel Aviv, Israel. This high school is also a technical college and is affiliated with the Israeli air force. Nearly all of the pupils will be drafted into the air force as computer engineers, electronics specialists, and mechanics. James MollisonAdvertisement
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Inglewood High School, Inglewood, California. The cheerleaders, in green, are on their way to the sports field, followed by the school band. Many of the school’s recent notable alumni are professional athletes. In the US, often more tax dollars are spent on high school athletes than on high school math students. James Mollison
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Utheim Skole, Kårvåg, Averøy, Norway. This small island school serves a community of 500 and caters to children aged five through thirteen. The nearest secondary school is fifteen kilometers away. Three years ago a tunnel was built connecting the island to the mainland and since then more people have moved to Kårvåg. James Mollison
Kids are kids the world over—they love to run and yell and play in the sun. The difference is where it happens. Children at a school in Bethlehem take recess behind thick walls to protect them from gunfire, while youngsters in Tokyo amuse themselves on a rooftop seven stories up. Playgrounds vary by location and circumstance, but play remains the same.
Photographer James Mollison fondly remembers his own school days and photographed children around the world for Playground. Over the past five years, he has visited more than a dozen countries, ranging from the US to Kenya, and Norway to Bolivia. The images are stunning in their color and size, and use socio-economic, cultural and political elements as backdrops.
“There was an incredible similarity between the way kids played everywhere—and although the building, landscape, or facilities of the schools were very different, there was hardly any difference between the kids’ behavior in Los Angeles, Nepal or in Kenya,” Mollison says.Playground, Aperture, 2015.
Though the photos are bursting with energy, the series also highlights the underlying dramas that unfold on every playground—the fights, the teasing, the minuscule yet monumental humiliations and glories. He experienced this firsthand working on the project. Once he finally convinced schools to let him shoot, Mollison sometimes had to deal with children taunting him. “I went to these inner city schools [in London] and they were pretty hard there,” he says. “At one school I had this kid that was wobbling my tripod. When I asked him to stop, he said, ‘No, you’re shooting porn!’ I’d be called a pedophile.”
To capture the rupturing sense of everything happening simultaneously, Mollison’s final photos are composites of several frames. Setting up his camera in one location, he shoots throughout a recess period, then seamlessly combines the most intriguing elements into one image. Mollison argues the final photos are stronger, conveying a “play narrative” that exudes the emotions of the children. It also allows for a strange sort of time-lapse to occur, one where you see the actions of everyone in frame simultaneously.
“There might be multiple things happening everywhere. I haven’t manipulated them in the sense that I’ve created lots of children when there are only a few or creating something that didn’t really happen,” Mollison says. “I think I almost intensified the moment.”
Playground is currently showing at the Aperture Gallery in NYC until June 11.