|Written by Max Houghton|
|17 Jun 2010|
A Child from Everywhere stands as a record of mass migration and globalisation at this point in the 21st century. Its remit is very simple: to photograph a child who now lives in the UK but was born in their native country to parents of the same nationality. Irby’s dedicated mission led her to children from 185 of the 192 states recognized by the UN and for this reason alone the project is remarkable.|
Juan from Chile © Caroline Irby
Laid out as a book, the project is a model of clear organization, divided into five sections with self-explanatory headings: Leaving and Arriving; Settling In; Being Here; Looking Back and The Future. The prosaic quality of these subject headings missed a trick for me; and indeed the book is so perfectly orderly that the exercise could be perceived as quite clinical. The subject matter is compelling, yet for it be a truly covetable book, I’d want it to reflect some of the messiness that will have been a feature of a fair proportion of these young lives. I’m not sure how this could be achieved. Perhaps it might have the feel of a scrap book, or be thicker textured, richer in meaning, somehow more enduring.
It’s possible that I am hardwired to snarl at pictures of cute kids (apart from my own, naturally). Irby’s shooting style makes every child look highly appealing, even the teenagers, which is some feat. I’d like each portrait to better capture an aspect of a child’s personality; to leave the viewer with a little piece of them. Of course, Irby may well argue that her portraits do just that, citing the intense gaze of Aura from Guatemala or the thousand yard stare of Elasbet from Ethiopia.
Alec from Finland © Caroline Irby
I think there is a distinction to be made between pictures of children and portraits, and while this book is full of pictures of children, its successes are to be found among the latter genre. While it is evident that Irby has often spent as much time as possible finding out about the child’s interests, and photographed, for example, Anthony from Grenada on a motor racing track, Mauricio from Brazil playing guitar, or Johnette from Liberia in her photo-filled bedroom, such pictures perform the function of a brief caption, albeit a perfectly eloquent one.
The country index at the back of the book provides further interest for list-lovers. I confess to never having heard of Vanuatu, but now I know that Cameron, 8, remembers setting traps for pigs with his mother when he lived there, and that he’d like to return to do that again. Comoros was the other country that had fallen under my radar, but Irby’s representative from this nation, Khelia, was just three years old, and her mother, in saying she hoped to pass on her country’s culture to her daughter, did not reveal what that culture might be.
Moeko from Japan © Caroline Irby
I infinitely preferred the larger portraits and longer texts, as opposed to the soundbites that are scattered throughout the book, accompanying the majority of images. Stories such as that of Inza, 15, from Ivory Coast, and Khulan, 14, from Mongolia, are the gems that make this work shine. Kuhlan’s family are nomadic Tuvas, who emigrated to Leicester, England to escape life-threatening racism in their homeland. Inza’s home thoughts from abroad are revealing:
“If I met other young people in Africa who wanted to get out and come here I’d say, true to say in England there is a lot of money – in Africa there’s not a lot of money. But Africa’s a lot of fun and if I was you I would stay.”
The foreword by the writer Aminatta Forna frames this work in terms of a discussion of selfhood, with the children poised at a crossroads of culture, which I guess they inevitably are. In its fullest expression, if each portrait hinted at that tipping point, if each story were fleshed out to detail how each child came to be here in the UK, this book would be award-winning. As it stands, it’s a snapshot of the changing face of the UK, and, in both senses, that’s welcome.
A Child from Everywhere
by Caroline Irby
Black Dog Publishing