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.”
More TODAY News
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.
“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.
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
- Dancing with the Stars Recap: America's Choice Results Are Revealed
- Sofia Vergara Plays Catchphrase with Jimmy Fallon and James Marsden (Video)
- Chris Soules: I'm Ready to Begin My Life with Whitney Bischoff
- Lady Gaga Defends Justin Bieber: 'He Really Has a Sweetness to Him'
- David Letterman Jokes That He's the Father of Reese Witherspoon's Daughter
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.
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints