“It doesn’t matter whether it’s Ethiopia or Germany”, says Julian Germain, the British photographer who has spent the last 11 years photographing children in their classrooms at school’s all over the world.
“Each school is instantly recognisable,” Germain says. “A teacher standing in front of rows of children in an oblong space, with a blackboard at one end is the template of education throughout the world.”
This universal experience is something that Germain has captured in his aptly named series Classroom Portraits, that will have its UK premiere at the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne at the beginning of October.
After starting the series in the north of England, Germain photographed in 19 countries across the world, including Russia, Taiwan, Bangladesh, the USA and Saudi Arabia.
The project began when his when his own daughters first started their education. He realised that, despite this experience being universal, there were hardly any depictions of schooling in the photography world.
“The way it worked was pretty random,” Germain says. “If I was travelling somewhere, I’d ask people I knew if they knew any teachers and whether I could go to their schools – it was often through random associations.”
After photographing his daughter’s school, he decided to contrast the images to a school in Cusco, Peru, that had once been captured by one of his favourite photographers, Martín Chambi.
“Chambi’s images were an important starting point for me,” he says. “I visited Brazil a lot and so I laid tentative plans to visit Cusco as I’d heard his grandson still lived there. When I arrived, the teachers were all on strike but eventually I got a picture inside the school.”
Although Cusco was dramatically different to his daughter’s English education, the comparison with traditional school photographs couldn’t be ignored. “School portraits have a charm because you can look at the individual characters within them. But they’re taken in a way that the people all stand in a line and bish bash bosh – they’re done. But of course those pictures don’t show what the school actually looks like, and are often taken in the school hall with or against a curtain.
“So I created a system where the camera was at the eye level of the pupils,” Germain says. “My idea was to find a way of photographing the whole class in their classroom space so that you could see the classroom as well as the pupils.”
He managed this by carefully choreographing the children so that each of them can be seen, leaving the classroom just as it was, and using a medium format digital camera. “I steal 15 minutes at the end of the lesson, and while it’s going on I’m setting up my camera,” he says.
The pictures display vast disparity in socioeconomic wellbeing, from confident Russian students wearing Prada to four Nigerian students crammed to a desk. “In some part of this country – particularly the former industrial heartlands where high unemployment has spread across generations – school is essential and needs to be inspirational if kids are going to stand a chance of progressing and leading healthy, creative and productive lives,” Germain says of the Nigerian school he photographed.
“When I was initially reflecting on this back in the 90s schools looked grey and run down and uninviting. I thought this was an appalling abdication of responsibility for the government,” he says.
An ongoing obsession of Germain’s is time, transience, ageing and generations. His pictures both transport us back to our childhoods, and also force us to consider the futures of the young people within them – what will become of them, will they become successful or will they fail?
“One of the fascinating things about the Classroom Portraits,” Germain says, “is that by the time I’d published the book, some of the kids I’d photographed in 2004 would have their own children.”
The passing of time, in this instance, places the burden of responsibility squarely on the observer’s shoulders. “I think it becomes a general call to adults to think about their responsibilities towards all young people – not just their own kids,” Germain says.
“We are responsible for the world they’re growing up in,” Germain says. “Despite being absent from the images, adults permeate every corner of every image. I like to think the work is confrontational; hundreds and hundreds of children and young people looking back at us with such intensity. I find that challenging.”
See more of Julian’s work here.