If Riverboom’s photographer Gabriele Galimberti had happened to shoot me, aged 6 and surrounded by my favorite toys, he would have seen the following: plastic medieval weaponry; assorted Lego (Space, Castle and Pirate); an inflatable Tyrannosaurus rex (punctured slowly into extinction); a Superman action figure (I lost it and hyperventilated with grief); a pair of cuddly rabbits (Sally and Billy); toy cars; a tiny guitar; a plane you launched with an elastic catapult; a replica pistol I thought my mum didn’t know about.
Everyone remembers their childhood toys. The fact that I can recall how most of mine tasted better than I can remember the names of my primary school teachers says everything you need to know about the universe kids inhabit. Indeed, when Galimberti hit upon the idea of photographing children from around the world with their toys, he was not expecting to uncover much we did not already know: kids love dolls and dinosaurs and trucks and cuddly monkeys, and will construct worlds around them before eventually, inevitably, disregarding them for ever. “At their age, they are pretty all much the same,” is his conclusion after 18 months working on the project. “They just want to play.”
But how they play can reveal a lot. “The richest children were more possessive. At the beginning, they wouldn’t want me to touch their toys, and I would need more time before they would let me play with them,” says the Italian, who would often join in with a child’s games before arranging the toys and taking the photograph. “In poor countries, it was much easier. Even if they only had two or three toys, they didn’t really care. In Africa, the kids would mostly play with their friends outside.”
Yet even children worlds apart share similarities when it comes to the function their toys serve. Galimberti talks about meeting a six-year-old boy in Texas and a four-year-old girl in Malawi who both maintained their plastic dinosaurs would protect them from the dangers they believed waited for them at night – from kidnappers and poisonous animals respectively. More common was how the toys reflected the world each child was born into: so the boy from an affluent Beijing family loves Monopoly, because he likes the idea of building houses and hotels, while the boy from rural Mexico loves trucks, because he sees them rumbling through his village to the nearby sugar plantation every day.
Ultimately, the toys on display reveal the hopes and ambitions of the people who bought them in the first place. “Doing this, I learnt more about the parents than I did about the kids,” says Galimberti. There was the Latvian mother who drove a taxi for a living, and who showered her son with miniature cars; the Italian farmer whose daughter proudly displayed her plastic rakes, hoes and spades. Parents from the Middle East and Asia, he found, would push their children to be photographed even if they were initially nervous or upset, while South American parents were “really relaxed, and said I could do whatever I wanted as long as their child didn’t mind”.
With the exception of computer games, he noticed that toys haven’t really changed over the past three decades or so. And there is something reassuring about that. “I’d often find the kind of toys I used to have,” he says. “It was nice to go back to my childhood somehow.”
Ben Machell – The Times Magazine