Portland photographer and pediatrician Calvin Chen’s life is punctuated by a thousand tiny moments of revelation. In both of his professions, he has examined child’s play with the delicacy and earnestness, allowing the imagination of his subjects to fill in the frame.
The photographs in Cómo juegan los niños (How kids play), now on view at Blue Sky Gallery, were made throughout Chen’s travels, many of which were taken with his mentor, photographer Ernesto Bazan. He has met some of the children and their families before, but others he’s encountered along the way. They are not his patients.
When asked how he approaches children in new places, most of them part of the developing world, Chen gives an answer that is both simple and profound: “One of the most refreshing aspects of my travels is how open the people are.”
Chen has met children whose safety and health is sadly not guaranteed based solely on the circumstances of where and when they were born, but they’ve taught him something about happiness. His photographs aren’t about life-changing events so much as they are about the fleeting bursts of delight and wonder that happen in between.
He’ll always remember, for instance, a little girl he saw in an Israelite village in the Amazon. She had been sitting in the church for hours when she erupted out of the door in a sprint. “The way she ran was was with such pure joy and freedom,” Chen says. Through these children, the photographer has found a rare passageway to the buried, treasured memories of his own youth.
More than half a century ago, another pediatrician, Benjamin Spock wrote, “A child loves his play, not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.” Chen’s photographs are in many ways a testament to this idea. The games these kids are playing are executed not with frivolity but with the utmost seriousness. It’s something Mary Ellen Mark, who taught Chen at one point, understood profoundly and instinctually.
Remembering the Israelite girl and the way she played, the photographer admits, “It reminded that whatever far, distant part of the earth we are in, we are the same.” As adults, we’d do well to follow their example.
All images © Calvin Chen