“I wanted to document the lifestyle of my generation”
t all started with a photo of a friend who lived in Paris. From that room in the French capital, to the 1,200 young people John Thackwray photographed, are six years and a dream: My Room Photos. His objective, now achieved, was to photograph a generation of people aged between 18 and 30 years old, in the spaces where they sleep, which, as Thackwray underlines, are not necessarily bedrooms. A young Buddhist in a temple in Nepal, a prisoner in Mexico and a Palestinian in a refugee camp. Beyond being a photographic project, this is a sociological study of the world’s diversity, as told through the next generation to dominate it. Each photo is accompanied by a testimony by its subject, and 100 of them make up the book: My Room, Portrait of a Generation.
How did you come up with the idea for the My Room Photos project?
I work as a photographer and a video and documentary producer, but, in my personal work, I focus on human rights and the problems that are damaging humanity. I attempt to make this a global message, through photographs, exhibitions and conferences. That is how ‘My Room Photos’ came into being, little by little, through the need to photograph the lifestyle and culture of a world that is changing at an increasingly faster rate.
How do you weigh up the six years dedicated to this project? What have you learned?
I have invested a great deal of time and energy. Basically, because I thought nobody would do it unless I did. Everything evolves so quickly that it seems essential to me to document the lifestyle of my generation. I am convinced that this project will be a valuable resource in the future. I have learned that inequality and ignorance are humanity’s main problems, and that we should all fight against them. And we mustn’t forget that the young people of today will design tomorrow’s world. I hope these photographs will raise awareness about what the world around us is like.
I hope these photographs will raise awareness about what the world around us is like”.
How did you contact the young people you photographed? Did they have to fulfil any requirements to form part of the project?
Convincing people to be photographed took about 95% of my time. Comparatively, I spent much less time on the actual sessions. To approach them, I used social networks (from my Facebook page), local NGOs and, on occasion, I asked directly in the street. The first thing I did when I got to a new country was create a reliable network of contacts and ask them to help me in the process. I interviewed people aged between 18 and 30 years old. Young people, with the same age as me, half of them women and half men. That is the only common criteria. I photographed poor and rich people, modern and traditional ones, and inhabitants of the city and the countryside. I always tried to photograph people with dignity, without worrying about whether they were engineers or farmers.
Why did you choose a high angle for your photographs?
This angle lets all the details in a space appear in a single photograph. It makes sense, particularly when you get to see the photographs in large format (at the exhibitions). My candidates were free to show or hide whatever they wanted. Some of them asked me to give them time to clean their rooms, others didn’t care. What you can’t see in the photographs is that there were a lot of people around me while I was taking them. Their spouse, parents, friends, siblings and so on. I normally had about ten people around me when I took the shot.
How many countries did you visit for the project? What did you discover on this journey and which were the places that made the biggest impression on you?
In total, 55 countries. At the beginning, I felt more attracted by the beauty of the photos themselves, their composition and colour. But, little by little, I began to pay more attention to the stories behind them, like the portraits of young Syrians living in a refugee camp. I was also struck by the spirituality in India, the hospitality in Russia and the crazy lifestyle in Japan.
What are the biggest differences between one country and another?
The main one, which will surprise no one, is language. There are more than 6,000 languages worldwide and this made the project quite complicated, even when I was able to find someone who spoke English in the community and they helped me communicate. That was the most frustrating part, because I couldn’t formulate some of the questions. The other big difference I was able to observe was the perception of family in each culture. In Africa, the father is the boss. He is the only one deserving of respect and he makes decisions on behalf of all members of the family. Conversely, in many Western countries, children are at the centre of the family unit, and their parents make great sacrifices for them.
Were there any common features between them all?
Most of them have access to the internet and social networks, including Saudi Arabian women and African farmers. It is a connected generation.
You have just published a book about the project, what has that meant for you?
In‘My Room, Portrait of a generation’ , I selected 100 photographs that, in my view, represent the diversity of young people throughout the world. I wrote down their stories and gave them the opportunity to express themselves.
Once the project is finished, will you be working on any other projects?
I am currently working to translate the book into different languages. After that, I will embark on another long-term project. If My Room Photos was about youth and photography, the next one will be about love and history.
South African born John Thackwray has directed television spots for leading brands and video clips for musical artists. But his photographic work focuses on creating portraits that expose sociological issues. Sections of the My Room Photos project have been exhibited in countries like South Africa, Japan, China and France.