“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I have been asking children in Africa and around the world this question for the past years as a part of my portrait project “One Day, I Will.”
In the Central African Republic (CAR), I met future diamond collectors, a pilot and business people. In Mali and Niger, I met our future journalists, nurses and farmers. In Congo, almost half of the boys came dressed up as soldiers. In every country, there were our future teachers.
This idea began as an experiment—a way to play a game with the children I met while covering a story about internally displaced persons in the conflict-ridden CAR. A community of Muslims had been sheltered in a church for a year, unable to leave for fear of being killed. The children were not able to go to school.
That day, I met a girl who started crying as she was telling me her story. I began thinking of how I could tell the stories of these children in a way that focused on possibilities for their future rather than a present, which is centered around their daily survival.
I was deeply touched, so I came up with an assignment for them. I told them to find a costume that represented what they want to be when they grow up and I would take their portrait photos in their future selves. I had no idea whether this would work, but it would at least be fun. If I changed their current situation myself, I could - at least - bring them a little of immediate joy.
The originality of what the children came up with that day amazed me, especially given that they were building a concept with practically nothing but paper, leaves, and pieces of clothes. This is how "One Day I Will" experience evolved into a long term project.
I was more and more curious about what results I would get elsewhere. I started replicating this idea while being on assignment in other African countries—Mali, Congo, Niger, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo. The children’s choices reflected their everyday experience: who they saw around them, what their parents did, who had directly influenced their lives. Many were pragmatic, some were more aspirational.
However, choices also highlighted the challenges inherent in their environments. In the diamond-rich CAR, parents often take their kids out of school so that they can help dig for diamonds in the fields. In Congo, the number of boys dressed up as soldiers speaks in part to the years of conflict they witnessed. In 10 to 15 years, considering the fact that one grows up in this environment, I am fearing the children playing with toy guns today will become the soldiers of a next war; a war that has always been a part of their daily life.
When will we break that cycle of violence ?
With these images, I want to engage the conversation beyond just the chosen perspectives to talk about issues like education and development. I want us to look at these young people; our next generation of leaders, and make us think what we can do to build and shape a better future.