Mark Neville – Child’s Play at Foundling Museum

Family in Shamattawa Aboriginal Reserve, Manitoba, Canada, 2, 2012 courtesy Mark Neville
Family in Shamattawa Aboriginal Reserve, Manitoba, Canada, 2, 2012 courtesy Mark Neville

You too would have a curious look if you were standing by a moose head bloodying the kitchen floor. But the boy in Mark Neville’s photo is curious about the camera, not the moose, and his elder brother is playing with some string while his mother sits below some spoons on the wall. No-one’s bothered about the moose, that’s just life in the remote, impoverished Shamattawa First Nation community in Manitoba, Canada. ’Because of the cultural genocide we inflicted on them’, says Neville, ‘they’re hopeless’. After he visited in 2016, the only food store burnt down.

The shot with the moosehead is one of the most startling documentary photos in Neville’s exhibition Child’s Play (also a book with good reproductions). The photos are not all grim, not at all, but the show aims to highlight child’s issues and advocate recreation as a universal children’s right, in a world where maybe 13 million of them are displaced.The venue, the Foundling Museum, was previously the first children’s hospital and first public art gallery in the UK, and it still maintains a rich, diverse old collection.

Mark Neville, 'The Jungle Book Rehearsals, Sewickley Academy', 2012, courtesy Mark Neville
Mark Neville, ‘The Jungle Book Rehearsals, Sewickley Academy’, 2012, courtesy Mark Neville

Neville embeds himself in assignments around the world, and his subject is people. He divided his shots of children into those in ‘Free Space’, ‘Structured Space’ and ‘Oppressed Space’, the last including Shamattawa. It’s interesting to see that the categories don’t always match the mood of the kids. A girl a bomb shelter in East Ukraine screams, but ecstatically – it’s the day after the bombs were falling. Of course, absorbed in play can make you look serious. Various kids in London playgrounds look deadly serious, and they’re in ‘Free Space’. Perhaps most serious of all, boys posing at a Jungle Book rehearsal in the structured space of a Pittsburgh academy strike adult looks, the central one with such a chilling stare, it’s scary. Conversely, two smiling British soldiers in Helmand, Afghanistan, where Neville was a war photographer in 2011, look so young, they could be children.

Whatever the circumstance, kids need to play. It’s a universal thing. They even make their own their playthings. In both Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya and Sangin, Afghanistan, Neville shows us children who have found that tyres make good hoops, and pose with them. Elsewhere, chance delivers some extraordinary moments, like when a frog jumps from a girl’s hand in London, or the green light falling from the balloon a boy holds onto Dad’s face, in a St Patrick’s Day family shot in Pittsburgh.

Neville reveals something of ourselves in these kids – whether they’re lost in their own word or sharing fun or being organised. They are us. From conflict zones to comfortable countries, their needs are ours. There is freedom in play, and these photos brilliantly capture how precious it is. 

Child’s Play is at the Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, London WC1N 1AZ until 30 April.

'Boy with Hoop in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya’, 2016, courtesy Mark Neville for International Rescue Committee
‘Boy with Hoop in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya’, 2016, courtesy Mark Neville for International Rescue Committee

About herbert wright

Herbert is a London-based writer and contributing editor to architecture-and-design magazine Blueprint. He graduated in Physics and Astrophysics, has worked in publishing, arts and music, and he knows two jokes. Website www.herbertwright.co.uk