Farhad Rahman’s short artist statement to his series One Last Playground begins thus. His photographs serve not as answers, but points of interrogation, raising deeper questions on the nature of play, childhood and their intersecting relationship with space.
In 2014, Rahman began to photograph children in Beribadh, on the outskirts of Dhaka, playing upon an empty site. Once a water body, this area was sanded in order that new land may be created, where none was before. As Dhaka continues to grow and develop it has begun to gradually expand outward, in the manner of urban cities everywhere — and filling in water bodies on its margins with sand, is seen as a quick way to meet the demands of a growing population and their increasing need for space.
Rahman in an email interview tells me that this series was not intended in any activist vein, and inspired primarily rather, by his own memories of playing as a child in fields. He notes in his artist statement, “This is the story of a fantasy world, where children still have the space to play. The place will soon be transformed into a construction site within a few days. [For now] this is the only remaining playground for the local children”, and asserts in his interview that it narrates not only the fantasy of these children, but also reflects the fantasy of his own lost childhood, a fantasy that many adults can relate to.
“As an embodiment of what might be, children help us to mediate between the ideal and the real: they propel our thoughts forward.” – Juliet Kinchin, MoMA curator, Century of the Child.
This mediation is nowhere better embodied, than in playgrounds — spaces that deliberately cross-pollinate vibrantly alive bodies with unfettered imaginations, creating in the process a symbolic counterpoint to the adult world of work and material logic. Rahman’s series with its barren playgrounds that have no playing equipment, are like open sandboxes with infinite possibilities and offer the widest scope for this display.
Playgrounds are also learning spaces that teach children not only how to negotiate relationships, but also space, by equipping them with a sense of place in the world. Within this landscape that straddles both the imagined and the real, narratives of self-absorbing freedom conflict with humiliation, and the dramas of childhood innocence, loss and cruelty are all played out — diluted or intensified, depending on which side of the court, one is on. The playground is therefore, “a space of excitement, games,bullying, laughing, tears, teasing, fun, and fear”, teaching valuable lessons — to children on how to navigate life, and to adults on the transience of childlike innocence and exuberance.
On a surface level, the photographs in One Last Playground are spirited, showcasing that lack of materiality is no impediment in the context of play. Beneath this playful subject however, lies a layered poignancy that prompts viewers to subtler reflections on the effects of poverty and privilege, the concerns of thoughtless urban expansion and development, and the complex spectrum of emotions that are engaged in the arena of play.
The built world of fantasy in play is constructed in these photographs through their unique staging, that Rahman clarifies sometimes involved direction from him, and at other times were produced by children striking up their own poses. Rahman’s affinity for high-key photography, adds a still more surreal tone to the images, keeping our focus tied on the children and their play, as the cityscape and world recedes into the background.
Providing plenty of funny, tender and thought-provoking images, One Last Playground highlights the peculiar balance of motion, play and reality, illustrating when stripped off all else, Nietzsche’s grand statement in Thus Spake Zarathustra:
The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred ‘Yes.’ For the game of creation, my brothers, a sacred ‘Yes’ is needed: the spirit now wills his own will.