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photo-eye Book Reviews: Where Children Sleep

Where Children Sleep, Photographs by James Mollison
Published by Chris Boot, 2010.
Where Children Sleep
Reviewed by Sara Terry
James Mollison Where Children Sleep
Photographs by James Mollison.
Chris Boot, 2010. Hardbound. 120 pp., 112 color illustrations, 8-3/4x11".

I know I'm supposed to like this book.

After all, James Mollison's portraiture work is widely respected in the art world. His exhibitions are always well-received and he's published several successful books -- including The Disciples, his book about fans of rock bands, which has drawn rave reviews for its clever portrayal of music lovers who mimic their idols. There's also Mollison's strangely intimate project, James and Other Great Apes, which for me is his most interesting work, with its intense close-ups of the amazingly expressive faces of apes.

But there's something about Where Children Sleep that leaves me cold. The book features portraits of children and their bedrooms from 16 countries around the world, including the US, Nepal, Brazil, Senegal, China and Mexico. Each portrait is accompanied with a short text about the child's life, written in a deliberately child-like structure of simple, to-the-point sentences. (The book's intended audience is readers of all ages but according to the cover notes, the text is targeted to nine to thirteen year-olds). Mollison says he hopes, "this book 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."

Where Children Sleep, by James Mollison. Published by Chris Boot, 2010.
 Perhaps nine to thirteen year-olds will respond to this book; perhaps teachers will be able to use the photos and text to talk about disparities between rich and poor, haves and have-nots. The book certainly features a range of children - from a Jewish boy living in an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank to a girl who works in a quarry with her family in Kathmandu; from a four-year-old beauty pageant queen in Kentucky to a mohawked punk in southern Scotland.

Where Children Sleep, by James Mollison. Published by Chris Boot, 2010.
 But for me, there's a contrivance to the whole undertaking that just doesn't sit right. Mollison has used his signature blank backdrop to make each portrait (to show each child as equal, as a child, he says), and has then shot an arranged still life of each child's bedroom. It served him well with The Disciples, but here it feels forced, and many of the children look downright freakish; I don't know that I'm seeing the child's truth as much as I'm seeing whatever "truth" Mollison wants to project on them. He's chosen children with an array of interests, backgrounds and privileges (or not), setting them up as archetypes when in fact they seem to be more like stereotypes. The whole idea of showing bedrooms as a way to tell a story also seems contrived - it's an approach that's been done to death and there just doesn't seem to be anything fresh in it here other than that a beggar's bedroom isn't nearly as well-equipped as one of a kid who lives on Fifth Avenue in New York City.

Where Children Sleep, by James Mollison. Published by Chris Boot, 2010.
 Mollison's reach for a children's audience carries through the book's design - a padded cover and child-like graphics and fonts for the titles and end pages. Perhaps that's ultimately what doesn't ring true for me: Mollison wants to reach children, but the endeavor feels too forced, too much like an adult who's telling you to be sure to eat your spinach.—Sara Terry

Sara Terry A former staff correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and magazine freelance writer, Sara Terry made a mid-career transition into documentary photography in the late 1990s. Her long-term project about the aftermath of war in Bosnia -- “Aftermath: Bosnia’s Long Road to Peace” -- was published in September 2005 by Channel Photographics, and was named as one of the best photo books of the year by Photo District News. Her work has been widely exhibited, at such venues as the United Nations, the Museum of Photography in Antwerp, and the Moving Walls exhibition at the Open Society Institute. She is the founder of The Aftermath Project (, a non-profit grant program which helps photographers cover the aftermath of conflict. She is currently directing and producing "Fambul Tok," a documentary about a post-conflict forgiveness and reconciliation program in Sierra Leone, which recently won a grant from the Sundance Documentary Institute.