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Even if you don’t remember a lick of elementary school classwork, it’s likely the joys and terrors of the schoolyard linger. I remember vividly the black asphalt playground of my Catholic elementary school in Oklahoma, where we played tag over its patched tar lines, kickball with balls that seemed always slightly deflated, and where a classmate would stomp on another boy’s feet while he tried to put his stolen shoes back on — camaraderie mingling with cruelty. In Playground, a new book and exhibition at Aperture Gallery in Chelsea, photographer James Mollison captures those narratives of pleasure and torment from school recreation spaces around the world.
Setting up his tripod in playgrounds in the United States, Sierra Leone, Bhutan, India, Japan, Kenya, Norway, Argentina, the United Kingdom, and other locales, Mollison would capture several frames of each site, which he then stitched together into a composite vision. Mollison previously published Where Children Sleep, a series on the bedrooms (or lack thereof) of children across the globe, and Playground similarly has a lot of empathy for the lives of others. His images capture the similarities of youthful play across social boundaries and national borders, but also the deep divides of class and privilege that are often put in place long before we’re old enough to understand their implications.
The settings are vastly different, from the ultramodern rooftop gymnasium at Shohei Elementary School in Japan and the rustic trees and faux campsite of Utheim Skole in Norway, to the crowded space surrounded by low, ramshackle structures with metal roofs at Valley View Academy in Nairobi, Kenya. Yet whether in the startling scene of the Aida Boys’ School in Bethlehem, with the looming shadow of a dividing wall and watchtower beyond the sun-bleached concrete space, or the contrasting Holtz High School in Tel Aviv, where orderly uniforms and even an old helicopter characterize the Israeli Air Force-affiliated school, Mollison found that play remained ubiquitous.
In each photograph there is roughhousing, physical games like tug-of-war and clambering over dangerous-looking metal equipment, and bullying. As journalist Jon Ronson writes in his forward, excerpted by the New Yorker earlier this month: “I see it as a book of horror photographs: little flashes of violence and cruelty. My eyes skip past the comfortable little cliques and the best friends holding hands to the outcasts, the pariahs, the ones protecting their faces from the blows.” Like a living Where’s Waldo? illustration, in each photograph are those echoes of different memories, both good and bad, in the chaotic schoolyard crowd.