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Image: 4-year-old Kaya in her bedroom in Tokyo, Japan
James Mollison
Kaya’s bedroom in Tokyo, Japan is filled with clothes, toys and dolls. Kaya’s mother makes the 4-year-old's dresses, and her father works as a railroad mechanic.
By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 8/12/2011 5:02:06 PM ET 2011-08-12T21:02:06

You can learn a lot about children by studying their facial expressions, or hair, or clothes, or body language. But if you really want to understand what matters most to a child, you must enter that most distinctive sanctuary of all: their bedroom.

After all, as documentary photographer James Mollison notes, a bedroom represents a “personal kingdom” for many children.

“When I was a child, my bedroom was my one space that I was allowed to personalize and make my own,” Mollison said in a telephone interview from his home in Venice, Italy. “If you saw my bedroom, you would have known more about me than if you just saw a photograph of me.”

Mollison started thinking along these lines back in 2004, when he was approached about doing a photography project tied to children’s rights. He knew he wanted to do something that stood apart from the familiar, haunting images used by many charities.

“A lot of charities use photos from a war-torn place or a disaster area, and in the photos the children are always smiling or kind of pleading with you with their eyes,” said Mollison, 37. “They work on a very emotive level, but you’re left knowing very little about the kid.”

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The children’s rights project wound up falling through for Mollison, but by that point his idea had fully taken shape: He wanted to capture images of the spaces where kids spend the night all over the world. Over more than three years, he crisscrossed continents and saw the vastly different places where children lay their heads in Brazil, China, Senegal, Scotland, Nepal, Kentucky, Kenya, New York, Japan, the West Bank and beyond.

The result is “Where Children Sleep,” a Mollison photo book published by Chris Boot that is arresting both for the astonishing differences it exposes, and the astonishing similarities. No matter how unalike the kids in the book may seem, it quickly becomes clear that they would almost certainly be friends if they could just spend a little bit of time together.

Image: Alex, 9, lives on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
James Mollison
Alex, 9, lives on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

“I thought it would be interesting to include children from both richer situations and poorer situations, and show that we all live together on the same world,” said Mollison, who was born in Kenya, grew up in England and moved to Italy in his 20s.

Slideshow: 'Where Children Sleep': A moving look at what kids have — and lack (on this page)

Many of the children photographed for the book are desperately poor, and a significant percentage don’t have bedrooms of their own — or rooms that they share with siblings. Alex, a homeless 9-year-old from Rio de Janeiro, sleeps outside on an empty bench or discarded sofa if he’s able to find one; otherwise, his bed is the pavement. Another 9-year-old boy, an orphaned refugee from Liberia, sleeps in a concrete shack alongside other pupils at a school for ex-child soldiers in Ivory Coast.

But even the book’s darkest accounts carry a measure of hope. Prena, a 14-year-old domestic worker who works 13-hour days in Kathmandu, Nepal, earns about $6.50 a month for her efforts and sleeps in a tiny, cell-like space. Despite that, she does manage to go to school three days a week, and she dreams of being a doctor when she grows up.

Image: Prena, 14, a domestic worker in Kathmandu, Nepal
James Mollison
Prena, 14, toils 13 hours a day as a domestic worker in Kathmandu, Nepal.

All the photos in “Where Children Sleep” are accompanied by substantial captions that are written simply and clearly. Mollison’s hope was that the book would resonate with both children and adults.

Mollison said he’s not trying to push an agenda or advance a campaign with the book; instead, he’s simply sharing images and stories that moved him. While working on the project, though, he found it provided a compelling way to examine complex social issues.

“Of course, a child isn’t to blame for his surroundings,” Mollison said. “Children are just born into certain situations. But this becomes a way in, to look at something and really think about it. This was most pronounced when I spent a week with Israeli kids and a week with Palestinian kids. You see how both groups are being brought up completely blinkered from each other’s experiences.”

TODAYMoms: Waking up to where children sleep around the world
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In his introduction to “Where Children Sleep,” Mollison writes about how his encounters with so many different children and families affected him: “I came to appreciate just how privileged I am to have had a personal kingdom to sleep in and grow.

“I hope this book will help children think about inequality, within and between societies around the world, and perhaps start to figure out how, in their own lives, they may respond.”

To see images and read caption excerpts from “Where Children Sleep,” click here to view a slideshow about the book. To see additional images from the project and learn more about James Mollison’s photography, click here.

Need a Coffey break? Friend TODAY.com writer Laura T. Coffey on Facebook, follow her on Twitteror read more of her stories at LauraTCoffey.com.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Photos: 'Where Children Sleep': A moving look at what kids have — and lack

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  1. Kaya, 4, Tokyo

    Photographer James Mollison spent more than three years traveling the world and getting glimpses of where all sorts of children spend the night. He documented his findings in the book “Where Children Sleep,” published by Chris Boot. Here is a sampling of Mollison's images and excerpts from the captions found in his fascinating book.

    Kaya’s bedroom is lined from floor to ceiling with clothes and dolls. Kaya’s mother makes all Kaya’s dresses – up to three a month, usually. (James Mollison) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Bilal, 6, the West Bank

    Bilal’s family are Bedouin Arabs. Their home is a one-roomed shack they built themselves in Wadi Abu Hindi on the West Bank. (James Mollison) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Indira, 7, Katmandu, Nepal

    Indira's house has only one room. At bedtime, she and her brother and sister share a mattress on the floor. Indira has worked at the local granite quarry since she was 3. (James Mollison) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Alyssa, 8, Harlan County, Kentucky

    Alyssa lives with her parents in Kentucky. Their small, shabby house, heated only by a wooden stove, is falling apart. (James Mollison) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Ahkohxet, 8, Brazil

    Ahkohxet is a member of the Kraho tribe, who live in the basin of the Amazon River. There are only 1,900 members of the tribe. (James Mollison) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Dong, 9, Yunnan, China

    Dong shares a room with his sister and parents. They are a poor family who own just enough land to grow their own rice and sugar cane. (James Mollison) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Anonymous, 9, Ivory Coast

    This 9-year-old boy is a refugee from war in Liberia. He goes to a school for ex-child soldiers in Ivory Coast. An orphan, he lives in a concrete shack alongside other pupils from his school. (James Mollison) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Alex, 9, Rio de Janeiro

    Alex does not go to school but spends his time begging on the city streets. Most of the time he sleeps outside, on an empty bench or discarded sofa if he can find one – otherwise on the pavement. (James Mollison) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Jaime, 9, New York City

    Jaime lives in a top-floor apartment on Fifth Avenue. His parents also own luxury homes in Spain and in the Hamptons on Long Island. (James Mollison) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Delanie, 9, New Jersey

    Delanie lives with her parents and younger brother and sister in a large house. The children all have their own bedrooms. (James Mollison) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Bikram, 9, Melamchi, Nepal

    Bikram lives in a stone house with his grandparents, aunt, uncle and two cousins in the mountainous countryside of Nepal. His parents were both killed during the civil war. (James Mollison) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Tzvika, 9, the West Bank

    Tzvika lives in Beitar Illit, a gated community of 36,000 Orthodox Jews. The average family there has nine children, but Tzvika has just one sister and two brothers, with whom he shares his room. (James Mollison) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Douha, 10, the West Bank

    Douha lives with her parents and 11 siblings in a Palestinian refugee camp in Hebron. Her brother Mohammed (pictured in the poster) killed himself and 23 civilians in a suicide-bomb attack against the Israelis in 1996. (James Mollison) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Ryuta, 10, Tokyo

    Ryuta is a champion sumo wrestler. His friends admire him because he never loses a wrestling match. Ryuta also belongs to the scout movement. (James Mollison) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Li, 10, Beijing

    Li lives in an apartment block with her parents in China. She is a perfectionist and will spend up to three hours each night completing her homework to the highest standard. (James Mollison) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Joey, 11, Kentucky

    Joey regularly accompanies his father on hunts. He owns two shotguns and a crossbow and made his first kill – a deer – at the age of 7. "Even his teddy bear was camouflaged," photographer James Mollison noted in a telephone interview. (James Mollison) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Lamine, 12, Senegal

    Lamine is a pupil at the Bounkiling village Koranic school, where no girls are allowed. At 6 every morning, the boys begin work on the school farm. (James Mollison) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Prena, 14, Katmandu, Nepal

    Prena’s room is a tiny, cell-like space at the top of the house where she is employed as a domestic worker. She goes to school three times a week – which is the main highlight in her life. (James Mollison) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Rhiannon, 14, Darvel, Scotland

    Rhiannon has had a Mohawk haircut like her parents’ ever since she was 6. She and her family and friends are part of the punk subculture and have formed a community of support where they all look out for each other. (James Mollison) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Nantio, 15, Kenya

    Nantio is a member of the Rendille tribe. She has two brothers and two sisters. Her home in Lisamis, northern Kenya, is a tent-like dome made from cattle hide and plastic, with little room to stand. (James Mollison) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Kana, 16, Tokyo

    Kana lives with four generations of her family – her sister, parents, grandmother and great-grandparents. Her passion is fashion. She and her friends have formed a club whose members' aim is to look like dolls. (James Mollison) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Risa, 15, Kyoto, Japan

    Risa lives with 13 other women in a teahouse. She and five others sleep in a room that is also used as a dining room and tea room. Risa is a 'maiko' – a young girl who has passed the test to train as a geisha. (James Mollison) Back to slideshow navigation
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