After photographing 500 classrooms in 21 countries over eight years, Julian Germain started to see commonalities — “sameness in the diversity,” as he calls it.
The elongated room filled with chairs, tables and desks, an adult standing in front of a chalkboard or interactive whiteboard.
“Everything about their world — the building, schoolbooks — is built by adults,” he said. “The underlying theme is the responsibility of adults for their future.”
For “Classroom Portraits,” the British photographer staged his shoots from the teacher’s perspective. The effect is a new twist on the class portrait, one that ditches the tiered rows and nondescript backdrop for a more natural setting.
Germain’s shoots took place in Africa, North and South America, the Caribbean, the Middle East and Russia — mainly, places he was already visiting between 2004 and 2012 for his work as a documentary and portrait photographer. He released a collection of the portraits in a book in 2012. Currently, they are on display at Towner Art Gallery in East Sussex, England, through January.
Each shoot lasted a single class period, with Germain spending most of the time setting up equipment while the children went about their lessons.
He spent the last 15 minutes or so getting students into place in a “careful choreography” to make sure each one had their own space and was not hiding behind another classmate.
Finally, he placed the camera as close as possible to eye level for a realistic look.
“The easy way would be to put the camera high above them and look down at the group, but it’s an unreal viewpoint, and you get unpleasant angles,” he said.
“I like to think the camera takes the role of teacher, and the camera becomes a metaphor for teacher.”
By using a long exposure for depth of field to capture detail in the signs on the walls, he managed to accomplish the feat of getting children to sit still for seconds at a time, creating a sense of intimacy.
“That moment when the picture is actually made is quite lovely and intense because everybody’s concentrating,” he said.
Like most photography, it’s political, too.
“To me, it’s about the sensation of being challenged to feel we are responsible for the community; they are our responsibility, and it’s not just our own children we should be thinking about,” he said.
“It’s about society and what a government’s responsibility should be and what a people’s responsibility should be.”