Warning: This post contains distressing photographs, including one of an emaciated child and one of a wounded (but bandaged) infant.
Uğur Gallenkuş (Turkish, 1990–) is an Istanbul-based artist whose digital photomontages address the widening global divide between the privileged and the oppressed. By combining photojournalistic images and stock photos with similar compositional elements, he juxtaposes the relative safety, stability, comfort, and flourishing experienced by middle- and upper-class Westerners with the violence, terror, trauma, and hardship experienced by victims of poverty, war, and displacement. Because Gallenkuş lives in the Middle East, he focuses on that geographic region.
Releasing November 20 in honor of World Children’s Day, Parallel Universes of Children brings together fifty of Gallenkuş’s sobering mash-ups, integrating facts of children’s lived realities around the world. It is $60 plus shipping, available only through the artist’s website. (For US buyers, there’s stock warehoused in New Jersey, so you won’t be paying to ship it from Turkey.)
“I aim to create awareness and inspire action to remember and to ask ourselves every day what we have done to safeguard children’s rights, both near home and across the globe,” Gallenkuş says. He wants not only to alert the well-off to the suffering they often shield themselves from, shaking them out of their complacency, but also to remind those in underdeveloped countries that they deserve better government and education, the right to thrive.
I’ve linked each image to its source on Instagram, where you can find out more information about it—when and where the photograph was taken and by whom (Gallenkuş does not take the photos himself), context, stats, etc. Some of the links will take you to a revised (updated) form of the image; in those instances, the originals I found at Juxtapoze.
The stark contrast between the two component photos of each montage is jolting, intentionally so. Reflecting socioeconomic and political disparities, they tell drastically different stories about childhood. My existence must look like a fairy tale to those who have grown up in war zones or refugee camps.
One of Gallenkuş’s montages shows a lavish bathroom with a chandelier, pristine tiles, and freshly pressed towels next to the remnants of a bathroom whose walls were blown out by an Israeli airstrike, where a father bathes his daughter and niece.
Another one shows a line of American schoolchildren waiting to board a bus, which transforms into a line of Palestinian children waiting to fill jerrycans and bottles with drinking water from public taps at the Deir al-Balah refugee camp in central Gaza Strip. (Many fall sick from the water, whose source is polluted with human waste.)
Consider, too, the differences in play. A child at an IDP camp plays with a toy grenade launcher, while his counterpart plays doctor. A Syrian boy has fun balancing on the barrel of a tank in a pile of wreckage, while opposite him, in a green park, a boy rides a harmless seesaw. The imaginations of children are shaped by what surrounds them, whether that be violence or possibility.
Some children have very little playtime at all, like an Afghan boy who works at a coal yard—while across the world another boy plays with Legos.
Decades of conflict have left countries like Afghanistan strewn with landmines, shells, and bombs. When ten children from the same family were walking to school one day in 2018, one of them picked up a curious object that ended up being an unexploded mortar. It went off, killing three of them. The remaining seven each lost at least one limb. Contrasting the very real and often fatal dangers children face daily in some places with the “dangerous” thrill of recreational skiing that children in other places can opt into, Gallenkuş portrays a young amputee on her crutches beside a carefree adventurer with ski poles.
While it’s common for American kids to complain about attending school, kids in less privileged contexts are usually grateful to learn, even though their classroom conditions can be horrendous. For example, in Taiz, Yemen, last year, children did their schooling in a room riddled with bullet holes and debris, the aftermath of fighting between Saudi-backed government forces and Houthi rebels.
The Yemeni Civil War, which has been ongoing since 2016, has led to famine. A November 2018 report by Save the Children estimated that 85,000 children under the age of five died from starvation and malnutrition since the war’s start. In May 2020, UNICEF described Yemen as “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.”
The effects of some wars that we thought were long passed are still keenly felt. In one photo from 2012, a Vietnamese woman helps her daughter move her arms for exercise. Because the woman had been exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, both her children were born with physical and mental impairments. Gallenkuş pairs this moving, choreographic photo with one of a child ballerina, emphasizing the disparate futures available to the two girls.
Sometimes Gallenkuş uses an art historical image for contrast—or rather, as I see it, for continuity, as in his Rohingya Mother and Child, depicting refugees from Myanmar to Bangladesh melding into a gold-leafed icon, or his Syrian Pietà, showing a father in Aleppo holding the body of his dead son. The association with traditional religious imagery underscores the sacred worth of human beings, who bear God’s image, as well as proclaims the presence of Christ with those who suffer. May we not turn away.
All these images are a sort of prayer in themselves, but here is a short written prayer by Elmira I. Sellu if you wish to intercede with God on behalf of the world’s children but aren’t sure where to begin:
Gracious Lord, you care so dearly for children and said in your word, “Let your children come unto me.” There are so many places in the world today where children are hurting and do not experience your peace. We pray that you move the hearts and minds of people to bring hope and not holocaust to the millions of children who are suffering violence and displacement. We pray that the children may see your love in the people around them and experience your peace. Amen. [source]