By Tanya Silverman
“Nurse” taken in Mali. Photo courtesy of Sofie Knijff.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
That may be a worldwide query adults ask children in order to gauge how their interests and values will play out in life.
Nonetheless, as children grow up and develop into experienced, mature, professional adults, one youthful characteristic usually tends to diminish: imagination.
Such human tendencies are universal, but the ways that individuals envisage life or engage imagination differs according to the countries in which they reside and cultures they typify.
Sofie Knijff, a photographer who lives in Amsterdam, uncovered several notable regional differences when working on her long-term project, Translations. From 2010-2013, Knijff traveled through South Africa, India, Mali, Brazil, Iceland, and Greenland, encouraging children to explore their own “dream characters”.
Of course, Translations transcended the banal what-do-you-want-to-be line. Knijff approached her encounters as a deeper means to help the kids “focus on their inside world”. The photographer, who has experience working with children in theater, helped the kids channel their fantasies to develop their “dream characters”—or the person they aspire to be—by figuring out what this individual does, how they look, and the way they dress.
When it was time for the photo shoot, she always set the stage by hanging up the same dark grey cloth as a backdrop. Knijff intended to foster a simple environment where the kids could separate from their surroundings, channel their imagination, and effectively embody their characters.
Embarking upon the dry deserts of Mali with her cloth and cameras, Knijff found that the Touareg children often chose to dress up as figures who serve the community, like marabouts (Muslim religious leaders) or doctors. Up in the colder terrains of Greenland, youths would present their personal “dream characters” as hunters or shopkeepers. Indian boys wanted to be anything from an aspiring businessman clad in a checkered suit and collared shirt to a shirtless, face-painted Harry Potter riding a magical broom. In South Africa, children envisioned themselves as talents, including a glamorous actress beneath a red velvet hat, as well as a cool singer behind stylish sunglasses.
While observing the photos, it’s apparent that these children unleash their creativity through the garments. For instance, an Indian boy portraying a policeman adds an official touch by fastening a pair of makeshift paper shoulder straps over his tank top. Meanwhile, the prospective Greenlander hunter portrays his imagined success by sporting a furry scarf over his long-sleeve shirt.
Perhaps the most interesting and imaginative costume comes from the little boy in rural Mali; not because of what he’s wearing, but rather because of what he isn’t.
“He was absolutely determined to have a blue jacket to be a journalist,” Knijff tells BTR.
However, no such jackets exist in his village comprised of desert huts. Not to be discouraged by the lack of consumer opportunities, the boy’s solution was to pick up some paint, outline lapels, dot buttons, and paint the desired blue suit right over his bare torso.
Reflecting on such instances, Knijff explains that when children reside in wealthier places, their “imagination becomes more concrete.” She’s observed that in richer European societies, kids who say they wish to be an architect have a very standard conception of the particular clothing an architect wears, plus the expectation they can attain it. However, for children in poorer countries like Mali, such items are not readily available.
“They’re really just trying to find solutions,” Knijff says, adding that the process “also works the imagination.”
When asked how she decided on the destinations for Translations, Knijff says she chose India and Brazil because the both countries have booming economies. She traveled to cities in these regions in order to check whether the urban kids were consciously affected by ongoing development—for instance, if they forecasted better future opportunities due to their rapidly changing countries.
Curiosity about the aspirations of rural children, on the other hand, was her motivation to explore Mali and Greenland. Another aspect of visiting the latter was to see if the ongoing climate change had any effect on the children’s prospects. She was also interested in whether they wanted to relocate because “the culture is fading away,” or if they cared to maintain their traditions and “hang on to the stories from their grandparents.”
Still, given all of the dramatic cultural, economic, and climactic differences that affect the mentality of children, Knijff kept the consistent stage settings with her signature dark, grey cloth that she carried through all the countries.
“I worked with the same backdrop because I didn’t want to show poverty or their surroundings,” she says.
Knijff explains that it’s important for the state of wealth or environment the children regularly experience to be absent from the photos—observers are supposed to see the finished artwork and “really look at the child,” noting “the dream they want to project.”
Further, Knijff acknowledges a fundamental truth about photography: it captures a moment.
She describes how working with children through Translations felt especially in-the-moment, as youths tend to change their minds often. One day they may aspire to a certain “dream character”, then decide something completely different the next. Situations change, too; Knijff explains that she would not be able to return to Mali at this point in time, given the violent struggle currently occurring in the country.
Though, for all it’s worth, at least the documented photographs can remain static and while a rich array of factual and analytical information surrounds Translations, Knijff says that, in the end, “the images should talk for themselves.”