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to be a childTo Be a Child by Debra Schoenberger
Blurb 2015
244 pages
Non-fiction: Photography

Publisher’s summary: Give a child a cardboard box and his imagination will turn it into anything but! Today, it is less common to see children playing in the streets, especially in urban areas. The plethora of ready-made toys should make any child happy. What usually happens is that the box the toy came in becomes the toy! This book documents children at play (and at times at work) from 10 different countries. A child’s ingenuity never ceases to amaze me and I hope you will share these images with your children as well.


This would be the first time I’ve (attempted to) review a photography book, but it’s certainly not the first time I’ve pored over the pages of one. Between my upbringing in an arty-farty family, my love of art and my photographer husband, I’ve long been interested in photography as an artistic form of expression and a mode of storytelling – though my attempts to learn the art itself have met with extremely mixed results. A book of photography taken around the world, focussed on children in their natural element, sounded promising. However, as beautiful and well-executed as some of the photos are, I feel that the story is missing.

There are indeed some wonderful shots here, ‘caught in the moment’ shots that make you feel instantly connected – like the one of the little Mongolian girl standing in front of the goats, legs splayed wide, face turned away, mischief and joy writ large in her body language. Many photos are understated, such as the one of the two boys playing the street piano, or the young Tibetan boy reading a comic book. But after scrolling through these photos – loosely divided into such categories as ‘play’, ‘work’, ‘discovery’ – I couldn’t help but feel the lack of a narrative.

With any picture, be it a photo or a painting or some other kind of image, it is through a story that we connect and make meaning from it. The context of this collection is perhaps too broad, or there are too many images that are simply nice shots (or, with some, merely okay shots), that are too disconnected to make a coherent story out of. The theme – children at play – is much too general for me to come away feeling like I’ve learned something, or gained some new insight. There was only, actually, one photo that I felt spoke of a story: a black-and-white image of a boy on a swing in front of his house, two women out-of-focus on the steps behind him. He has a slightly sad or dispirited look, his body language a bit slumped, that I instantly started asking questions: who is he? Why does he look sad? Why is he alone? What kind of family life does he have? and so on. It’s interesting to note, but the quieter, possibly sadder photos are the ones that generate interest. (Some of the especially happy shots are too much like regular happy-snaps.)

There was also the problem – a “problem” that shouldn’t really be a problem, but seems to go hand-in-hand with children – that more than a few of the photos were simply cute for cute’s sake. Do I sound unbearably pessimistic, that I’m struggling to find joy in experiencing these photos? I did experience joy with some – I especially loved the Mongolian photos, scattered though they are (that might have been a better way of organising them, perhaps?) and some of the Nepalese, Tibetan and Indian photos. I just needed some other angle, a bit of ‘edge’, some insight into social justice themes or the contrast between first-world and third-world. This collection lacked a sharper purpose, one that I kept looking for. (The idea that children are children – human – no matter where they live or how they live, their skin colour, religion, language, rather than an Other, is a valid and important one, but not one that spoke to me here, despite the breadth of the photos.) As nice as the photos are, overall that’s all they remained for me: nice. I would rather be slugged in the stomach, in good and bad ways, and close the book with the images imprinted on my brain. That didn’t happen.

To Be a Child shows evidence of talent, an ability to make use of natural lighting – accomplished well in places like Mongolia, less well in Canada – and a good eye for capturing understated and sometimes poignant moments. Towards the end there were some contrasting scenes – mother and child on subway or train, in different countries, but I struggled to make any profound meaning from them. The collection is interesting but needs tighter culling, or some kind of over-arching thesis or critique to complement the images. There’s no such thing as an objective photo, so essays of the photographer’s interpretation and experiences in these countries, her insights, anecdotes and context, would have rounded out the book and guided the reader.

My thanks to the author for a copy of this book via iReads Book Tours.

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Debra SchoenbergerAbout the Author:

Debra Schoenberger aka #girl with camera

My dad always carried a camera under the seat of his car and was constantly taking pictures. I think that his example, together with pouring over National Geographic magazines as a child fuelled my curiosity for the world around me.

I am a documentary photographer and street photography is my passion. Some of my images have been chosen by National Geographic as editor’s favourites and are on display in the National Geographic museum in Washington, DC. I also have an off-kilter sense of humour so I’m always looking for the unusual. Plus I usually have a lot of scars on my knees.
​(le sigh…)

I live with my creative director, Miss Pickles (my budgie) in Victoria, BC, Canada.

Buy the book: Website Amazon
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Connect with the photographer’s website: Website

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