Simon Ly photographed his home computer. The screensaver shows his friend, 17-year-old Jahmal Mason-Blair who was fatally stabbed earlier this year. The white card next to the photo reads: “RIP, rest in paradise, killed with a flick knife.”
Ly was one of twenty-eight children trained by renowned photojournalist Gideon Mendel and supplied with a camera to document life on the Kingsmead estate. The spread of images captured by Mendel and the year 5 pupils from Kingsmead School has resulted in the remarkable exhibition, Kingsmead Eyes.
The display starts with a rectangular composite of neatly arranged pupil portraits. Rows of children dressed in navy blue uniforms, a gold crest on their left breast, stare into the camera; some with a smile, others with a cocky air, a few impassively.
The photographs follow, pinned along the museum walls and secured with white drawing pins that match their borders.
The images depict the childhood experience of parents, siblings, friends, leisure activities, school, and the concrete estate.
Most are mundane: a mother wrapped in printed cloth, cooking in the kitchen. Some are arresting: a friend hanging from a sun-dappled tree, or the rounded “oh” of surprise stretching across the face of a subject. But along with the cue cards – poems written in meticulous joined up – all share engaging narratives of life on an estate.
Along with the images snapped by children, Mendel has added a video installation. On screen the children talk about the pictures they’ve taken, the motivation for their choices, and the skills they’ve learned.
The overall effect is rich and refreshing. In Kingsmead Eyes, the photographer and his young apprentices place at centre stage an existence too often snapped in monochrome. Without question these are young lives scored with difficulty. But it is heartening to find this world is also warm and coloured with humour, respect, love and the little things that make life special.
Kingsmead Eyes is at the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green from 7 November 2009 – 7 February 2010.