Everyone remembers their most prized possessions. Mine were an Etch-a-Sketch, some wads of Silly Putty, and an endless supply of Crayola crayons: surely you can rattle off yours? Galimberti, an Italian photographer who specializes in serials, all variations on a single theme, said he expected to show kids with the basic playthings: dolls and trucks, monsters and plush animals. “At their age, they’re pretty all much the same,” he concluded. “They just want to play.”
“I learned more about the parents than I did about the kids,” he said. It’s common for toys to mirror family values: the girl from a wealthy Mumbai family loves Monopoly, because she likes buying houses and hotels. The boy from rural Mexico loves trucks because they constantly roll through his village to the nearby sugar plantation.
His unscientific study showed that Middle Eastern and Asian parents pressure their shy, nervous or upset kids to be photographed, while South American parents, “said I could do whatever I wanted as long as their child didn’t mind”.
But what he found most interesting can’t be seen in the pictures. How kids actually play was widely variant. “The richest children were more possessive. They wouldn’t want me to touch their toys, and I would need more time before they would let me play with them,” he said. “In poor countries, it was much easier. Even if they only had two or three toys, they didn’t really care.”
Ben Machell of The Times Magazine, who wrote the foreword to the project posted on Galimberti’s website, observed that kids will “construct worlds” around their favorite toys, believing that their toys can protect them from danger, and those threats vary by country.
Taha was born in Palestine but now lives in a refugee shantytown in Beirut. He has a single toy, the racecar, which he happily shared with the photographer.
Norden lives in Massa, a small village outside of Agadir. The room where he plays and sleeps is empty except for a carpet. Every day he wakes up early and travels to the valley where his family farms, where he spends most of his time playing with a small stray dog. The items in the photo are all the toys he owns.
Faida lives in east Cairo, a new and affluent part of the city. Her father works abroad for an oil company. When he returns home each month he brings her back a stuffed toy. Her favorite is the bear she’s holding, his name is Peter and he comes from Canada.
Talia was born in Algeria, in the middle of the Sahara. Her parents work in a small travel agency giving desert tours to infrequent tourists. This photo was taken just after her birthday and the bike is a gift from her father.
I discovered Galimberti’s images this weekend at the same time a friend was volunteering at the Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees: The Times of Israel estimates that 120,000 people currently occupy that site. Although her mission was artistic (to teach small children, and design and paint a mural), she went armed with bags of toys and art supplies financed by ragtag donations from friends. While those gifts were wondrous, given the thousands of kids in this camp, these micro-donations amount to little more than a pimple on an elephant’s ass.
For decades, Jordan has been welcoming an incoming tide of Palestinians, Iraqis, Lebanese and Syrians. Galimberti’s subjects may have sparse playthings, but each has a home, filled with with family and friends. I couldn’t look at his images without thinking of the unrecorded parallel series: what do refugee children play with? Their needs are enormous. How can any individual make a lasting impact?
The answer is simple: give money. Give money to legitimate relief organizations who can navigate secure transport and equitable distribution.
Save the Children established their Jordan field office in 1985 with a special focus on children and families. They work to improve health care services and education and create economic opportunities for poor women that result in real and lasting change for children and families. If these photos pull you back to your own childhood, if they pull on your heart, please open your wallet and make a difference. Here’s the link to their Syrian donation site, but a moment googling will bring you to many other child-focused charities for the region of your choice.
Sure it’s springtime, but I doubt the Easter bunny will object to you acting like Santa Claus.
All images via Gabriele Galimberti’s website