Child’s Play, Foundling Museum, February 2017

img_3628I have been thinking about photographing kids at play, it is actually quite hard to take pictures of them, at least it is when my three are involved. If they stop and look at the camera they kind of lose that joyous element of unrestricted freedom. If you take a quick snap while they are not looking directly at you, you rarely take a great picture. There is blurred movement, you don’t often see their faces but you do at least capture that element of fun.

Looking back at some of my own pictures, the best ones seem to be bad photographs but they do capture that sense of unrestricted fun. The Foundling Museum’s new temporary exhibition by Mark Neville naturally doesn’t suffer from any of my bad photography habits. His work is an exploration of what play is and what it means in different times and places. Mark has drawn images of children at play in diverse environments, from his own travels and assignments as a documentary photographer in Afghanistan, Ukraine, Syria and refugee camps in Kenya. There are also pictures from closer to home, from Port Glasgow to adventure playgrounds in North London taken especially for this project.

I am beginning to get a real sense of joy from seeing large photographic prints on walls. This is my second photographic exhibition in as many weeks and it is giving me a hankering to print out my own pictures. I am privileged at the press preview as I get a guided tour from Mark. A chance to appreciate the photographs not just as pictures but moments in time in his own life too. I comment on how much I like the photograph showing Jungle Book rehearsals from Sewickley Academy in Pittsburgh from 2012. Mark tells me it is the only photograph in the exhibition in which he actually appears. His reflection cast in the top corner from a mirrored wall in the rehearsal space.

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The Jungle Book rehearsals, Sewickley Academy, Pittsburgh, 2012. Copyright Mark Neville. Three boys from a series of photographs examining the legacy of the steel industry in two contrasting boroughs of Pittsburgh, USA. 
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Mark Neville appears in the top right of the Jungle Book rehearsals. 

I think it is important to see Mark in, and as a part of, this process because for him his work and use of photography is to affect social change. Accompanying the exhibition is a book written with Adrian Voce, play worker, writer and former director of the campaign body Play England. The book seeks to look at attitudes to play, giving an overview of international and national work in the field of child’s play. There is also a symposium in March that will explore the issues of spaces to play.

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Mark Neville talking through his work. 
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Child’s Play book that accompanies the exhibition. 

Copies of the book will be sent, free, to key policy makers, local councils and government departments to highlight the importance and rights of children to play as well as asserting the impact of play on development and growth.

“The right to play is the child’s first claim on the community. Play is nature’s training for life. No community can infringe that right without doing enduring harm to the minds and bodies of its citizens.” – David Lloyd George 1926.

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Child, Jacket, Slaughtered Goat, Sweets, Painted Nails, Xmas Day, Helmand, Afghanistan, 2010. Copyright Mark Neville. Taken on Christmas Day at a frontline checkpoint in Helmand. He is eating sweets from a British Army ration box. The clash between different customs, traditions, and religion comes to the fore here. 

This is not the first time Mark has worked in this way. In 2013 he produce a book of photographs of Corby in Northamptonshire. The book was a commentary on the legacy of toxic waste left behind by stainless steel works that led to several children with birth defects. Again sent to all 433 local authorities to raise awareness of the impact of industrial landscapes on local communities.

This is what I find really interesting, for me it is not just the social use of photography but how these shots are communicated that makes a difference. I read a Guardian article where Mark states –

“The way images are disseminated is intrinsic to their meaning.”

I think this has important implications for the way we take and consume photography particularly in today’s smartphone, photo-obsessed generation.

As I walk round and look at the photographs I realise it is not a simple case of ‘have and have nots’, of east and western culture, of war torn regions and refugees versus ‘wealthy’ countries. It is more about having space, time, freedom to explore, discover learn and grow and the right to that opportunity.

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Family in Shamattawa Aboriginal Reserve, Manitoba, Canada, 2016. Copyright Mark Neville. The remote isolated community of Shamattawa is home to members of the Sioux and Cree tribes. The community experiences poor child mental health and an alarmingly high rate of child suicides. 

The one photo I can’t get out of my head is from Manitoba Canada, a family in Shamattawa, an Aboriginal home to Sioux and Cree tribes (above). The people living with a legacy of cultural genocide, struggling with poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, poor housing, unemployment and lack of amenities. Mark tells me of the horrific proliferation of child suicides. For me it is photo about loss of hope, it is confusing, a family situation; a home, kitchen, kids and perhaps a mother. It is all these things and none of them all at the same time.

Child’s Play is a thought provoking exhibition that fits perfectly at the Foundling Museum  where Mark’s photographs of spontaneous play are set against the evidence of institutional play at the Foundling Hospital. As much as I love the Foundling Museum, in a way it is an exhibition I would almost like to see in another context. Just as play is never confined to playgrounds and play parks, to really appreciate the free nature of play and unrestricted nature I would love to see the exhibition somewhere surprising that doesn’t have a such a strong child-centered focus. I feel that then it might have even more social impact and create more opportunity for debate.

In a world where refugees, religion, integration and culture are becoming so talked about you have to wonder at a generation who have lost and who will continue to lose that space to play. How they will grow and the adults they will become leaves a big question mark in my mind and makes this exhibition exceptionally timely and important.

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Child’s Play  by artist Mark Neville is on at the Foundling Museum from 3rd February – 30th April 2017 for more information on opening times and ticket prices please see the website. http://foundlingmuseum.org.uk/exhibitions-collections/exhibitions-displays/

More on the Child’s Play Symposium can be found here – http://foundlingmuseum.org.uk/events/symposium-space-to-play/

 

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