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Please note: RPS House is closed for our exhibition install. We will be open again from 10am on Friday 9th August 2024.

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CREDIT: Nancy Richards Farese

The power of play across the boundaries

In an extract from her book Potential Space, social documentary photographer Nancy Richards Farese argues play connects children across the globe – even in the darkest times

Above: Rohingya children waiting their turn, Bangladesh, 2018. On behalf of CARE International

In Bangladesh, in 2017, the world seemed turned upside down. I was at a Rohingya refugee camp, constructed in just weeks to support more than one million people fleeing sudden genocidal violence that had erupted in Myanmar. Most of the refugees were children, many orphaned just days before arriving. As a photographer my job was to document the expertise of CARE International in providing an emergency response to this tragedy, a painfully explicit example of human brutality.

Amid the chaos of displaced people trying to adjust to abrupt and violent change, the most surprising sound was not the pounding of hammers or the stunned silence of traumatised people. It was the laughter of children. As I got busy with my camera, I couldn’t help seeing that on the edge of every frame, children were sliding down mud hills, configuring sticks and rocks into cars, and making kites with plastic bags and old cassette tapes. So, I turned around to focus on the other story of the refugee camp – the bold display of children exercising the muscle of human resilience that lies within each of us. These children were playing, and they were serious about it.

The series of photographs [featured in the book Potential Space: A Serious Look at Child’s Play] opens a window to the boundless world of children at play around the world. Play … is an essential resource for resilience and joy for all humankind. In my travel to 14 countries over 10 years, I have visually explored the traditions of play in diverse cultures and economic contexts.

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Free play, on the road to Lalibela, Ethiopia, 2014

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic serves as a harsh reminder that while life can be ambiguous and chaotic, we are also deeply, globally connected across geographies, political systems and species. The aim of these photographs is to promote the “aesthetic force” of art that Harvard University art historian Sarah Lewis has observed “slips in the back door of our rational thought and gets us to see the world differently”.

This is the power of the visual image to provoke change. And looking at this rich, global tapestry of play stories, we are prompted to ask fundamental questions. What are the implications for individuals and societies when play is diminished? How can play heal us after trauma? And, importantly, in our own distracted and plugged-in lives, do we inadvertently encourage the opposite of play?

‘Potential space’ is a concept developed by D W Winnicott, the British psychoanalyst and pioneering expert on child development, who maintained that all human culture is derived from play. From the moment of birth, we begin differentiating from our mothers, pushing the edges of the psychic ‘potential space’ between our inner world and outer reality. This is where play happens – when your pillow-fort becomes a kingdom, when you lose yourself in music, or when you are so ‘in the zone’ of joyful activity that you forget time and space.

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Praise discovering snow, Massachusetts, 2017. On behalf of RefugePoint

Winnicott believed these experiences are not at all frivolous but part of the serious work of personality development, and thus foundational to much of our physical, emotional and social capacities. Play is how we expand and test our human potential, and is vital to our survival and wellbeing.

I grew up in a small town in the rural south [of the USA] where my mother would nudge her seven children out of the house for hours each day, sometimes locking the door behind us, for what we would now recognise as ‘unstructured’ play. Outdoors and on our own, we argued and negotiated, built castles and caught frogs, until we were called back home. Even as I now carry my camera with me everywhere to photograph the life of children at play, my own memories colour and inform what I see in the field, contributing to the joy of the work.

Though play can take seemingly infinite forms, we know it when we see it, anywhere in the world. Photography, therefore, is an ideal tool to capture the exuberance and complexity of what happens when we play. A game of jacks is recognisable whether it is played with stones in a dirt alley in Burkina Faso or with plastic pieces on a tiled floor in Bangkok. Dolls, kites and balls appear everywhere in these photos, reminding us that many of these games are universal.

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Making mud pies, Bangladesh, 2018. On behalf of CARE International

Photography is also about composition, choosing what to keep and what to leave out. Much like a photographer, each of us is composing our world view as we move through our day, deciding what to pay attention to and what to dismiss, often unaware of inexorable forces that shape our scope. My hope is that these photographs connect with us beyond the head, to reach the heart, reminding us that our aperture on humanity can be wide and generous; the composition is ours to choose. Games and dolls, imaginary friends and adventures – these play stories are shared by all humans. As we look closely at these images, we see children going about the business of being curious, inventing fantastical spaces, and opening wide to new faces and ideas.

We all know how to play. My intent with these photographs is to contribute to the private and public questions of who we want to be and how we want to live together. Play has been recognised by the United Nations as a guaranteed human right. Can we do more to promote children’s play as a key indicator of wellbeing for a human-centric world?

An aphorism attributed to playwright George Bernard Shaw posits: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” In many ways, the world has never seemed so chaotic, so ambiguous and so uncertain. We should never stop turning to play as an intuitive and joyful source of replenishment, one of the most powerful muscles we can develop in the quest to adapt and thrive.

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Playing dolls, Spain, 2018

This is an edited extract from Potential Space: A Serious Look at Child’s Play by Nancy Richards Farese, published by MW Editions.

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