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Photographing rooms, capturing lives

Photographer travels world to document how youth live their lives

Image Credit: COURTSEY John Thackwray
John Thackwray’s project is a collection of hundreds of photos of people all around the world, sitting in their rooms.
Gulf News

From amateur photography to a worldwide photo project, John Thackwray has come a long way.

His first photography project, My Room, is a collection of hundreds of photos of people all around the world, sitting in their rooms.

The 30-year-old Frenchman has travelled across Europe, North America, Central and East Asia and is recently set aside six days stay in the UAE.

For Thackwray, My Room is the work of a lifetime, but he didn’t know that three years ago when he began it; he was simply a novice photographer taking portraits of his friends in Paris. Then friends of friends began showing interest and inviting him to take pictures of them.

“At that moment, I started feeling it could become something a little serious,” Thackwray says.

It became more than just a little serious.

In 2010, he began taking photos of friends in London and Rome. Then he decided to embark on a three-month trip across Europe, covering places like Germany, Bosnia, Turkey, among others. When he was done he had around 200 photos, but even then, he hadn’t yet planned the extent of his project.

“At that time it was just a hobby, a different way of travelling. It was also a way to meet people, and it was just basically to see how people of my age live in all those countries,” Thackwray says.

Thackwray returned to France and reflected on his experience, and in 2011 decided that he would organise a trip around the world, spanning North America and Central and East Asia.

“It was really great because the gate was open to many different cultures. I was with Native Americans, with the Sioux people in South Dakota, I was with Inuits, I was with tribes,” Thackwray recalls.

Thackwray ended his trip in Nepal.

When he returned to France with photos in hand, his friends encouraged him to exhibit them publicly. He applied to Les Rencontres Photographiques de Arles, one of the largest and most prestigious photography exhibitions in Europe, held over the course of two months in the French town of Arles. There, he won the Jury Awards and was able to show his work in a two-month long exhibition.

Thackwray has put a hold on exhibiting his work again until he finishes his project next year, after visiting South America and Africa. When he is done, he will have photos of 800 rooms in 45 countries over a four-year period, representing 85 per cent of the world’s size and 90 per cent of its population.

Thackwray was an amateur photographer when he began My Room, but he says he was “subconsciously inspired” by the 1994 photo project Material World by American photojournalist Peter Menzel, who took photos of families all over the world with all their material possessions piled up outside their houses.

The differences that were so pronounced in Material World are perhaps less obvious in My Room. Thackwray says he “discovered [globalisation]” through this project. “It’s true and it’s amazing,” he says. “Our generation, 20-25 years old, has exactly the same lifestyle everywhere around the world.”

What’s more obvious from the photos is how different people are as individuals. The photos are taken with the subject sitting in the middle of the room looking up, and the photo is taken as though from an aerial view. The differences in organization, in content and in space between the rooms are striking.

The reaction to his work has been positive wherever he’s gone, he says, with people eager to participate. “It’s very simple and positive,” he says. “It’s a really sincere project.”

As My Room has grown, so has Thackwray’s commitment to it. He says he now feels compelled to complete the project. “If I don’t take these photos no one’s gonna take it,” he says, pointing out how fortunate he has been to be able to travel to so many different places.

The awards he’s won have confirmed to Thackwray the significance of his work, but despite this success, Thackwray says that this will probably be his only photography project. Instead, he says he wants to create a mobile exhibition and return to all the countries he’s visited to show the results of his work. In fact, he is planning to exhibit the project in Dubai in the spring.