By Sophie Mitchell, Publishing Director, DK Children's
DK published the best-selling Children Just Like Me in 1995. Twenty-one years later we publish a new edition that reflects how children around the world live today. I have been lucky enough to work on both editions and a dip into the project archives prompted this look back at the challenges of creating the original.
Photographing and documenting children’s lives isn’t easy and must be undertaken sensitively. For the new edition, a group of photographers working across the globe captured a snapshot of children’s lives today. They got to know the children’s families via email and social media – Facebook proved invaluable. For the shoot in Botswana the family used the computer that belongs to their village. Over 10,000 new digital photographs were taken over a relatively short period of time and digital files of images and interviews were delivered securely and instantly.
Twenty-one years ago the global digital connectivity we now use every day didn’t exist. There were no smartphones, laptops or tablets, or social media of any kind. The internet (the so-called World Wide Web) had only just been made public and was not yet widely used. Email was an emerging technology, as was digital photography.
Against this background, DK undertook a most ambitious photographic project. The photography for the original edition took nearly two years to complete as Barnabas and Anabel Kindersley, the photographer and the author, travelled to over 30 different countries, on every continent across the world, and immersed themselves in the lives of the children who starred in the book.
Contact with the families was made by letter and by fax. We often worked with UNICEF, the children’s charity, who us helped reach children in, back then, remote or challenging locations.
The travel schedule was punishing, with photoshoots planned around seasonal weather patterns. As the photographer and author travelled to one location, plans for the next trips were being put in place. Hundreds of faxes were sent, arranging travel itineraries and obtaining visas and entry permissions. The plans often went awry. Torrential rain washed away roads in Vietnam, forcing a last-minute relocation of the photoshoot. And after months of planning, the meeting with a Bedouin child in Jordan failed as heavy snowfall had caused the nomadic family to move on.
The amazing author kept the team in London in the loop as to her whereabouts with evocative faxes that often detailed the challenges she and the photographer faced on their travels. There were many times when no contact at all was possible, in places without electricity.
Back in 1994 the logistics of the photoshoots were very complex. The shoots themselves usually took three or four days. A great deal of time was spent getting to know the families and the child; something more easily done today via social media.
Getting mountains of photography equipment through customs wasn’t easy – the photographer frequently had to unpack every last lens, box and bag to prove he wasn’t a smuggler. There was a very large excess luggage budget, too!
Being pre-digital, the photographs were shot on film. Hundreds of rolls of film were bought at the outset of the project to ensure consistent colour matching. We had to anticipate how many rolls would be needed on each trip. We quickly learned to send some extras – to allow for damage and accidents and those serendipitous moments no one can plan for. Leaky canoe trips on the Amazon and sub-zero temperatures in the Arctic Circle played havoc with the films. The exposed films were posted, couriered or carried back to the office after every shoot. This could also be fraught with trouble – a lost package or damaged film was a disaster – the moment with that child could never be re-captured.
Interviews with the children were recorded onto cassette tapes. Some of the children were shy, others more garrulous and hundreds of these tapes were amassed as they answered questions and described their lives, families, friends, fears and aspirations. The interviews were transcribed from the tapes, and the children’s words became the captions and quotes in the book.
Once transparencies had been made from the developed films and the text prepared, they were married together in hand-drawn page layouts like this before going off to be printed in the final book.
Today’s world is increasingly global and connected and this new book is a perfect starting point to celebrate cultural differences and similarities. Simple but sensitive insights into daily lives are invaluable for teachers, play-workers and families exploring other cultures. Children love to see how other children dress, what they eat and what they play with. This book affords a way for children to explore the different ways people live and gently introduces the concepts of economics, culture and religion.
The book is also immensely reassuring. The children’s stories reflect certainty in an often-uncertain world. They display compassion for others as they voice views on the environment, on war, on education and on the importance of friends, family and community. This shines strongly from these new stories and we hope the book will be an important part of every child’s home and school library.