When James Mollison thinks back on his childhood in Oxford, England, most of his memories are set on the playground, the place where kids learn—in ways that are sometimes exhilarating and sometimes terrifying—how to relate to other people.
In his book, Playground, which was published by Aperture in April, Mollison explores that universal place of childhood development, through photographs of playgrounds around the world.
While Mollison’s photographs provide a look at how different schools in the U.K., for instance, look compared to those in Kenya, they’re not merely architectural studies. The photographs are teaming with children, and looking at them, you can watch scenes unfold and relationships develop.
That’s largely thanks to Mollison’s special photographic approach. Once he got to a school, he would set up his tripod at an angle he liked and then take several exposures during recess. Later, on his computer, he’d look for events that intrigued him and then build a scene around them, sometimes using the same characters more than once in order to show the progression of time. Each image is composed only of elements originating from the same recess period. Some of the images aren’t altered at all.
“I wanted to make pictures quite rich in the sense of having different layers. When you look at them you can see these little moments. It might be about the way a child is standing and thinking, or it could be the moment after an incident has happened, or it could be the middle of an argument or a play fight,” he said.
Mollison started his project in the U.K. in 2009, and then continued in Kenya, where he was born, because he was working on an assignment there. The other countries that Mollison visited were mostly determined by where he was sent on assignment, with the exceptions of India, Russia, and Israel, which he funded himself. Over six years, he visited 17 countries in all.
As Mollison traveled he saw the various ways that breaks are organized. In China, for instance, he photographed highly structured exercise breaks, where the whole school went outside and participated in stretching and aerobics. In Sierra Leone and Kenya, he saw students who had none of the play equipment and other luxuries he’d visited elsewhere. But across the world, there were similarities he witnessed that transcended all socioeconomic situations.
“The play was incredibly universal. I saw very similar clapping girls’ games, and then with boys it was literally identical horseplay,” he said.
Photos from Mollison’s book are on display at the Aperture Foundation’s gallery in Manhattan until June 11.