For more than eight years, Judy Gelles has photographed and interviewed more than 300 fourth-graders around the world. With three questions, she’s gotten a peek inside their worlds.
Gelles started her photo project in 2008 after volunteering with a fourth-grade class in Philadelphia. She asked the students various questions including three that would create the foundation of her project: “Who do you live with?” “What do you wish for?” and “What do you worry about?”
She then photographed them facing backwards (because of the school’s policy). Gelles has since been to China, England, India, Nicaragua, St. Lucia, Italy, South Korea and South Africa to repeat the process and learn about fourth-graders around the world.
Nicaragua, Public School
Gelles, who has a master’s degree in counseling, interviews each student for 20 to 30 minutes, making sure to include the same three questions as before, and takes a photo of their backs. While some students expressed that they were content with their lives, others opened up about their struggles at home. The photographer told The Huffington Post that the age range of the fourth-graders is “perfect” for her project.
“They’re right on the cusp of adolescence, but they haven’t hit it yet,” she said. “They’re very sophisticated, but they don’t censor yet so they’re very honest with their answers.”
Nicaragua, Public School
When asked if a particular student, school or country stuck out to her, Gelles said every school presents her with something unexpected. She credits this to going to the schools with “a blank slate.”
“I don’t have any preconceived ideas and I actually don’t do a lot of research on the schools,” she said, later adding, “You learn everything from the kids. You learn about their fears and their attitudes toward the world and their world views.”
In March, Gelles will travel to Israel to continue her project and interview more students. She has no plans to repeat the series with older or younger students, but she does want to expand her current project with fourth-graders. She has formed an advisory board to help her create a curriculum for the project so it can be used in the classroom. She hopes that once it makes its way to more students, it will help them learn about fellow fourth-graders miles away.
“By sharing the lives of other fourth-graders, we are taking the advantaged and disadvantaged children out of their bubbles and exposing them to what life is like for fourth-graders and their families around the world,” she said.
See more of Gelles’ fourth-grader photos series below. For more of her work, head to her site or Philadelphia’s Pentimenti Gallery site.