Beginning in his native England in 2004, Julian Germain’s Classroom Portraits project quickly became international in scope. In the years since, Germain has visited more than 450 schools in over 20 countries. In 2012, Prestel published over 90 images from the series in a book of the same name, one of our favorites of the year. We spoke with Germain via Skype on his methodology and the similarities and differences of the primary school experience around the world. (via)
How did this project take shape?
It began in the sense that, when I went to my daughter’s classrooms, I realized that I hadn’t been in that environment since I was at school, and it brought together some ideas that had been running around in my head for quite a long time about education as a theme for a piece of work. And then, when I started really to look into it, I realized that it’s not an area that’s very well represented in visual art, which is a very weird thing, considering we spend so much of our lives in that environment. When you look around art galleries and museums, you don’t find schools represented there.
Yeah, it’s interesting, because it’s such a universal experience for almost everyone.
Obviously when you go to the poorest countries, they talk about the millions of children that are excluded from education, and that’s obviously a very serious matter. But in the developing and developed world, it’s pretty much a universal experience.
The thing I love about these photographs is that there are two subjects: the children themselves and the surrounding classroom, which takes on a significant meaning in all these photos.
From the beginning I was interested in the environment, and after I played around with the subject for a little while, I settled on the idea of photographing the whole class. In a traditional class photo, the official photographer will go into the gym and the photograph will take place in front of a curtain or a brick wall—some kind of blank environment. And so from the beginning I was interested in showing all of the kids—I like the philosophy behind the traditional class photo, which is to include everyone…And at the same time, even though you can have a class of 20, 30, 40 or more kids depending on where you are, I really think that every person in those photographs gets individual attention, because I have to pay individual attention to make sure they are each in the photograph. And it all has to take place relatively quickly, because everything happens in a real lesson. In no case was this ever a gathering of kids getting together especially to have their photograph taken. In every case this is a real math lesson, a real science lesson, a real religious instruction lesson, and the lesson happens as normal. I just take 15 minutes at the end to make a portrait.
Do you find that the kids from different countries and cultures react similarly to this kind of abnormality in their day?
Quite similarly. I don’t think even the majority of the kids in the richer developed countries are familiar with being photographed in this way. Everyone in our culture is familiar with being photographed and is familiar with photography. And in some countries, they have a culture of taking photography more seriously, because they don’t have it hardly at all in their normal domestic lives. For example, in a rural part of Ethiopia, they take being photographed seriously because they don’t have quite the same experience with photography being part of everyone’s birthday, Christmas, holiday…
Or a part of every day, for a lot of us.
But the culture, for us, is built around photography happening at special occasions, where you’re supposed to be happy. Which is why we have this tradition of a smile in photographs, which doesn’t exist in painting portraits for example, does it? But, because the [large-format] camera I’m using is a bit unusual, and the way I’m working is a little unusual, the experience for 99.9% of the kids is a bit different than their normal experience of being photographed. They sense it’s important for me, and they know, because I’ve told them, that they’re going to be some of a relatively few children to be involved in this global project about education, so in general they take it seriously.
I love looking through the book and trying to guess which country we’re seeing. Sometimes there’s enough contextual information in the photo to make a good guess, and of course those taken in the U.S. are instantly recognizable to me, having experienced that myself. And then in other cases I can be dead wrong, which is interesting.
Yes, you can do that. In many ways, you put your own experiences into the picture from your own culture. You recognize the spaces, you recognize the people, maybe you even recognize some of the same books or the same historical figures in the background in the classroom. So I think there’s a lot of pleasure to be had out of it in terms of revisiting your own childhood, but obviously the pictures from the very different cultures work in a different way, because you can’t have quite the same connection with those environments as those that you’re familiar with.
Whatever culture you’re looking at, you tend to look around at the kids, and you tend to make assumptions about people. You can kind of figure out who’s maybe the cocky one, who’s the brains of the class, who does and doesn’t work very hard–these people exist. And one of the things that’s so fascinating about a class of kids, particularly in state schools, is that you get all kinds. And amongst those classes of kids, there are all kinds of outcomes in line for those people. Inevitably, since these are photographs made in the past, some of the kids in the book may already have kids of their own by now.