The Playhouses of our Grandparents

posted on January 28th 2013 in Books & Documentary & Photography with 0 Comments

Nicolas Henry‘s “The Playhouses of Our Grandparents” is a portrait of the older generation across the world, from France to Vanuatu via India, Brazil, Morocco, New Zealand and Sweden. For each portrait, some sort of shack or temporary shelter was constructed using the subject’s familiar possessions.

It was a process that lasted for five years, and Nicolas Henry put into words the reason of this project:

Growing up, our “playhouses” were our imaginary hideaways, sanctuaries where we felt protected, surrounded by our favorite things. Our own little theater set where sheets metamorphosed into oceans, and piles of books became islands inhabited by Indians, Pygmies or Robinson Crusoe. Whether created in the backyard or under the covers in our bedroom, when we designed and built a children’s fort, den, or playhouse, we invented a whole new world in which to play, dream and let our imaginations run free. When I was little my Grandfather taught me the art of woodworking and my grandmother that of sewing. Later as an adult, quite naturally I turned back to my grandparents when I wished to relive some of those magical moments we had shared, when gestures spoke louder than words; and it was there and then that I took my very first photographs of my own grandparents. From these first images, the project « Playhouses of Our Grandparents » was born: my personal quest to seek out and meet our elders and give them a voice. I wanted to explore with grandparents all over the world the games and pastimes of yesteryear, rich channels of transmission, wisdom and knowledge. So I set out to discover the world, with nothing more than my camera, a bag of rope, clothespins and some studio spotlights.


Maria Celia Grefa Aguinda, at the foot of one of the last great trees, Amazonian forest, Ecuador.


Aiair Randes, at the site of the mistery house, Lorbaap, Vanuatu.

With every new encounter I would show people those first photographs of my grandparents’ playhouses – photographs I had glued in a sketchbook, or other shots taken in towns, villages or countries where I’d just been. This photo-journal explained my ideas better than any verbal description ever could have. Along the way, I realized how the Playhouse is a universal concept. Inside every one of us, lies the youthful spirit of a child who revels in creating with everyday items around him, a world invented entirely by his imagination.

When arriving in a village, I would search out my “accomplice.” Often this was someone around my age who was inspired to convince his own grandparents to join in the adventure of making a Playhouse. Explaining the concept of building a children’s fort was always a good way to get creative juices flowing. Based on the concept that for me, any grandparent was perfect for the part, my accomplice would often start by presenting me a member of his own family, a neighbor or key community figure. Given the magic of word-of-mouth and human curiosity, the invitation to participate in playhouse-building spread like wildfire and gradually more and more people came forth to participate. This enthusiastic support meant we could build and photograph a new playhouse every day.

Over time, my installations became bigger and more elaborate, built primarily outdoors, often on symbolic sites, so that what might start as a simple photo-shoot would often turn into a full-fledged theater set. Playhouses were built from the stuff of elders’ lives, objects from their past and present, the very foundations of their existence. Utensils, knick-knacks and all kinds of tools were then arranged and staged, juxtaposed according to individual ideas and the tales the grandparents would tell during the course of installation. The Playhouse gradually became a vehicle for freedom of speech, a setting where memories, revelations and the joy of sharing reigned.

Sometimes, up to forty people would collaborate, with more than a hundred spectators gathering around to watch the work in progress. This theatrical setting and captive audience often set the stage for spontaneous oratory outbursts from members of the community. From a single playhouse, countless words sprung forth.


Maley Kunnaphan, in the temple of the family home, River Kwai Bridge, Thailand.


Rolyn Thompson, and the eye of the forest, on the Garden Path, Vintua, Vanuatu.


Thomas Charley and his helicopter fish, Tana, Vanuatu.


Woo Kwong Hou doing his tai-chi on the rooftops of Hong Kong.

Read more about the project, Henry’s statement, see more pictures and memories and/or buy the book going to the official website here.


Images credits: Nicolas Henry.

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