In this, our Olympic year, the world has witnessed an extraordinary multi-cultural spectacle in the London Games.
For most, I’m sure, it has been joyous, exciting and fascinating to see so many people from so many diverse walks of life meet for one huge event.
As you may have read earlier in the year, I have had a small part to play in the Olympics too. However, I have also been working on the culmination of another huge multi-cultural project — Julian Germain’s Classroom Portraits.
I have worked with Julian on this project for seven years — scanning and printing some 200 images selected from the 500 or so made.
Largely commissioned by The British Council, this body of work has now become a huge documentation of the world’s youth in their schools around the globe.
Over the last few months, I have really enjoyed preparing many of these photographs for Julian’s major show The Future Is Ours at Nederlands Fotomuseum and for the accompanying book, Classroom Portraits published by Prestel.
Over the years, so many discussions have arisen in the making of these photographs.
In preparing this article, I posed a question to Julian:
“In your preface to the book Classroom Portraits, you describe the seemingly magical moment where ‘you are waiting for them and they are waiting for you’.
“Having visited so many schools in so many countries across the globe, you have clearly had a unique insight into the lives of thousands of children from so many backgrounds and cultures.
“I wonder, on your travels making these portraits, can you recall where you experienced the greatest vibe of happiness?”
“Well, that isn’t an easy question…
“Firstly, I found mostly happy, interesting kids everywhere I went, as well as a few surly difficult ones. I enjoyed every country too, although I did find Saudi Arabia and Qatar more difficult to acclimatise to.
“I guess you are really referring to a vibe coming from the pupils but I can’t avoid my response being coloured by the vibe that I was getting not simply from them, but from being in their country, experiencing their culture beyond the classrooms.
“On that basis, I was probably most deeply affected by experiences in Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Yemen — all extraordinary places with particularly friendly and, let’s not pretend otherwise, very poor people, without access to the consumerism that defines our (or any) modern economy.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if I was seduced by the idea of this kind of innocence of materialism — lets face it, in a way this is one of the themes of For Every Minute You Are Angry You Lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness isn’t it?”
“Nevertheless, to try and give you an example of a happiness vibe moment…
“In Ethiopia, because of the rain and mud, I had to abandon my truck, lights, generator and walk two miles to a village primary school.
“It was a beautiful walk past open countryside and occasional round wooden houses with thatched roofs, no electricity or running water. The few people I saw smiled and waved.
“It was quiet, tranquil even, just the sound of the birds and the light breeze in the trees. The school was crowded with kids (so they must have come from far and wide) and it was missing at least two teachers that day.
“Some pupils had notebooks and pens but most didn’t. The teaching was obviously basic. There were just a few textbooks. No desks or tables, just benches and a blackboard, mud floor and walls.
“I photographed every class, two in lessons and the other three outside because every class was desperate to be photographed. They took it very seriously and were very proud.
“At the end of the morning (a different crowd of kids arrived for the afternoon session) I walked back along the track with several pupils, each of them eager to show off their handwriting before peeling off at various points on the track to follow their own particular paths home.
“They told me that if and when they graduated to secondary school they would walk 9 miles there and 9 miles back, not a prospect that bothered them in the least — in fact, they were looking forward to it.
“That afternoon I visited that secondary school and made a portrait of a Grade 12 Physics class with at least 70 pupils, several of whom had gone to the aforementioned primary and would shortly be embarking on that long walk home.
“The lesson was on the First Law of Thermodynamics — way over my head. The teacher was amazing, dressed in a sparkling white lab coat, passionate about his subject and very proud of his pupils.
“I was moved, overwhelmed by the vibe created by a room full of young people with such enthusiasm to learn.”
In addition to the photographs, the reader is treated to a foreword by Dr. Leonid Llyushin, Professor of Pedagogy at St. Petersburg State University along with a preface by Julian.
A truly stunning, engaging publication and an essential addition to any photo book collection…
The exhibition of 140 prints is running at the Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam, until 2nd September.