Interview with photographer and journalist, Caroline Irby
Caroline Irby began taking photographs when she was thirteen years old and had her first newspaper articles published when she was seventeen. At eighteen, she spent three months in Paris with Magnum "immersed in great composition and surrounded by my heroes" and since then, she has won several prestigious awards for her work, which has appeared in major UK magazines. She has also taken photographs for many international aid agencies, including Oxfam, Save the Children, UNICEF and WaterAid.
Caroline has become particularly well-known for her work with children from all over the world. She has recently completed a project which involved photographing and interviewing children who have immigrated to the UK from all but seven of the world's countries, and which has been published as the book A Child from Everywhere.
She is based in London and is expecting her first child.
Does your global outlook stem from your childhood?
Perhaps. I was born in Hong Kong and came to live in the United Kingdom when I was two; I travelled quite a lot with my parents as a child and went to Africa for the first time when I was 16, which had a massive impact on me. Most of the photographers and writers I know who travel extensively with their work have had a peripatetic childhood, so maybe there’s something in that…
Your most recent book and exhibition, A Child from Everywhere, encompasses 185 children from 192 countries living in the UK. Can you tell us what gave you the idea for the project and how you went about making the idea a reality?
Wherever I’m working in the world, I tend to tell the story through the children I meet. I’ve listened to and photographed children in Sierra Leone and Haiti, Darfur and Kashmir... But you don’t have to travel far to find a good story – or a child’s perspective on it.
In my own country, the UK, there is an extraordinary story unfolding: the UK has long been a focus of immigration, but whereas in the past there have been concentrated influxes from isolated areas, we now have almost all the world converging on one place.
I have to thank the Guardian Magazine for first commissioning this project, bringing my attention back to the UK and allowing me to explore these two subjects, children and immigration, which I’m so drawn to in my work.
How did I make the idea a reality? I called on schools, city councils, refugee groups, religious institutions, universities, embassies, cultural organisations, language schools, online chatrooms, family and friends for help. I attempted to conscript almost anyone I met who sounded like they came from overseas: I was given leads by the postman, a lady I met in the swimming pool changing room, the driver of a freight truck parked outside my home… On my own, I would have found no one – I’d still be staring at a wish list of 192 countries.
When you started, did you really believe that you would be able to include a child from all but seven of the world’s countries?
At the start I had no idea how many of the world’s 192 nationalities were present in the UK, but I did believe that I’d 'route' out as many as were here. I found it interesting to discover which countries are not represented in the UK (Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and San Marino), and which (Central African Republic and North Korea) were here but did not want to take part. To me the absence, or abstaining, of these countries was part of this project because it also told a story.
How did you introduce the project to the children you photographed?
I introduced the project first to the parents or teachers, whose trust and cooperation I needed in order to begin. If or when the adults decided they were happy for me to proceed, the meeting with the children was set up – usually at the child’s home or school – and it was here that I first talked with the children about the project. I just explained to them who I am and what I do, talked about what I was trying to do with this project (usually they then had a few questions for me: wanted to know how many children I’d met so far and who I was still looking for etc), and sometimes I told them a few anecdotes from my encounters with the other participants to try to make them feel that they were in the company of many children, and that nothing they said was irrelevant or silly.
Because I’ve travelled so much with my work, I’ve been to many of the countries these children come from, and whenever this was the case, I’d talk a bit with the children, before we started the interview, about what I’d experienced there. Often I was the first person they’d met in the UK who had visited their country (in the case of Tajikistan, Guinea Bissau, Namibia, Swaziland etc), and I think my familiarity with where they are from may have made them feel more at ease about telling me their stories.
What reactions have you had to the whole collection from those who took part?
I’ve heard more feedback from the parents, and they seem chuffed with the end result - the book - and proud that their child has represented their country in this project. But they were won over from the start, or they wouldn’t have agreed for their children to take part.
Some of the older children were in touch with me directly when they first saw the work published, in the Guardian Magazine. My favourite response was from 16 year old Johnette from Liberia, who had lived through the war there, then fled to the UK with the father she had never met, leaving her mother, who she adores and misses constantly. I was amazed at her empathy, and lack of self pity, in the email she sent me, below (she is referring to the death of Kwame, the Ghanaian boy who took part in this project, who died shortly after and whose death was referred to in the magazine):
One of the things that comes through in the book is the resilience of the children who have had to adapt to a new culture. There is almost a paradox at play: between a detached awareness of the differences between their old and new homes, and, at the same time, a deep sensitivity to them. What did this mean to you, listening to so many different stories?
I think that’s right: there is a detached awareness, amongst these children, of the differences between their old and new homes, and this comes from having left behind so much at a very young age. They are probably less sentimental, as a result, than children who have lived their lives in one place. I think these children from everywhere also have a more global perspective than most, and are more reflective. As Aminatta Forna wrote in her introduction to this book, “These are children born at the crossroads of culture, of nationality, of politics and history… in order to understand themselves they have to and have already begun to understand so much more.”
What marker do you think the project has put down in the lives of some of the children who participated – for example, those who had never spoken about their lives outside the UK before?
I can’t assume it’s put down any marker, and though I’ve been in touch with all the parents and teachers of these children to let them know about the publication of the book, I don’t expect all of them have seen it. But for some of the children, I think talking out about their experiences did have significance. Of the estimated 565,000 migrants who arrive in the UK each year, 26,000 of them are children, and though these numbers are often cited in the media, the stories behind them – particularly those of the children – aren’t often told. Some of the children who took part in this project said to me that, since arriving in the UK, they’d rarely or never spoken about where they’ve come from, or what they’ve been through. 14-year-old Khulan from Mongolia told me at the end of her interview: “I’ve never talked about this since I’m here. I got a little brother who was born here, he’s two and a half. I really enjoy talking about all these things again – I just can’t wait for my brother to grow up and tell him everything about Mongolia. I just can’t wait.”
How do you think the fact that you are a photographer and the project provided first and foremost a visual encounter affected the way the children responded to you?
Actually I don’t think the children had that idea of me – that I am a photographer first and foremost. They knew that they would be photographed by me and they knew that I would also interview them; and their initial encounter with me was not me-with-a-camera, but me sitting at their kitchen table having a cup of tea (or a schnapps) with their parents. The interview always preceded the photograph – I almost always work in this way: I like people who I am working with, particularly children, to be familiar with me before I start pointing a lens at them.
What do you hope people, especially young people, will take away with them from the book / exhibition?
When you see people as people, not as stereotypes or symbols of something else, you’re much more likely to treat them humanely. So I hope that if anyone, young or old, comes to this project with stereotypes of immigrants, they might find their preconceptions challenged by what the children say. I’d also just like readers and viewers to enjoy the magic of children – to be surprised, to laugh, to be moved.
The book doesn’t specifically focus on why the children are living in the UK, though the quotations cited often give some indication of this. It is clear that a number of the children were escaping some form of disaster in their home-country. Can you share any particularly memorable moments with us?
The child whose story most affected me was 14-year-old Khulan’s, from Mongolia, who I mentioned above. I stumbled across her at a secondary school in Leicester. I’d been given a list in advance of the nationalities represented at the school, but when I arrived, the secretary remembered one more. Khulan looked the archetypal British teenager, but three years earlier she’d been living a nomadic life on the Mongolian steppe: sleeping in a yurt and herding sheep and camels – she didn’t go to school. I asked only a few questions: her story poured out almost unprompted. Finally, when I asked whether there was anything she missed about her country of origin, Khulan told me that when she’s travelling on a train in the UK and passes horses in the fields, she misses the animals in Mongolia and wishes she could ride a horse again. A few months later I went back to Leicester and Khulan and I went riding together.
What makes photographing and interviewing children special for you?
I love working with children because they live in the present moment, and when you really engage with them, you find yourself inhabiting the present too. Unfortunately that seems to happen rarely in adult life, so I’m grateful for all opportunities to return to that way of being and really live in the present again.
I also feel that children give the most sensitive, and maybe most accurate expression of what is happening in almost any given situation. And you also get to see the world through fresh eyes when you’re with children – they’re the ultimate artists, seeing everything anew. I’m fascinated to hear and see what new arrivals to this world make of it all.
As a photo-journalist, you have witnessed the effects of poverty and conflict in different communities around the world. How has this affected the way you live your own life when you are not behind a camera?
That’s very hard to measure. I hope it’s affected the way I live a lot, but it probably hasn’t nearly enough. The thing I’m most bowled over by on every trip to a developing country is how hospitable people are, even when they’ve never met me before. I’ve been fed, given a roof over my head and generally cared for by people all over the world who don’t even know me. I always come home promising that I’ll do the same, but the truth is I don’t live like that - I’m certainly not as giving as people seem to be on a day to day basis in the poorest parts of the world. I think that spending a lot of time in situations of poverty and conflict has made me very grateful, though, for what I have: for the relative state of peace and affluence I live in.
You recently spent some time in Peru. Can you tell us about your trip?
That was a short trip, in and out in a week. I was photographing for UNICEF, documenting the lives of children in a shanty town just outside of Lima, and the impact their lives made on UNICEF ambassador Ewan McGregor.
Do you have any other trips planned – what projects are you working on at the moment?
I’m eight and a half months pregnant, so can’t fit in any more trips before the baby arrives, but I’m planning to take the baby to Japan at the end of the year, where an exhibition of A Child from Everywhere will be showing. I can’t wait to start seeing the world through his or her eyes.
And there are projects on the go in the UK… One is a sort of visual letter to this unborn baby, which I’ve been working on over the last few months. And I’m working on another story which also concerns migration, though this time I’ve narrowed my focus down from 185 people to one. I’m trying to tell the story of a migrant worker from the Philippines who has been living in the UK for thirty years. She left behind her life, and four small children, in order to give those children opportunities she never had. I’d like this project to become a book and am working on a dummy model at the moment with a Japanese designer. What she’s created is beautiful. The photographs are very delicate and quite dreamy, made on a Rolleiflex - the project is very different in feel to ‘A Child from Everywhere’. We’ll see where it goes...
*Marjorie Coughlan is PaperTigers' Associate Editor .
Posted August 2010
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