What your toys say about you: Spanning 58 countries, Toy Stories is a photographic study of the objects children love most
Two years in the making, Gabriele Galimberti’s joyful series reminds us of the comfort that kids find in teddies, trucks, dolls and dinosaurs.
As early as I can remember, I knew that cute and fluffy toys were the ones for me. Not the hard shiny plastic kind that came in the shape of miniature flip phones or bottle-green army men. They had to have a kind face and resemble some kind of animal, vegetable, mineral or blob-shaped thing. And they obviously had to be soft. Over time, as my obsession gradually subsided, it left a lingering feeling of comfort that remains to this day. And now, as someone in their mid-20s with a distinct penchant for plush teddies, I wonder how toys have shaped the person I am today.
GalleryGabriele Galimberti: Toy Stories
When I first came across Gabriele Galimberti’s photo series, which ponders this powerful childhood connection to toys, I was filled with delight. I could not stop flicking from one perfectly composed image to another, featuring children from Texas to Haiti, the Philippines to Albania, Kenya to Malaysia, the list goes on. It resonated, not just because of my personal affiliation with the subject (if I possessed the necessary talent to take a good photo, this would be my dream project) but also for its breadth.
The renowned photographer travelled the world, across 52 countries, for these photographs. But creating Toy Stories wasn’t the original intention for his jet-setting spree – it was a happy coincidence that just happened along the way. It all started in Gabriele’s home town of Castiglion Fiorentino in Tuscany, with a trip to his best friend’s house. There, his best friend’s child was playing with cows in the distance, and she asked Gabriele to take a picture of her. “I thought the situation was really nice and decided to take a picture of her then and there, with the cows and her toys together,” he tells us.
The photo came out pretty well and Gabriele – who has previously shot for the likes of National Geographic and Marie Claire – loved the result. Later on, he decided to take the idea with him when he was commissioned by the Italian magazine D La Republicca for a two-year job that would take him around the world. The major publication employed the photographer to delve into the wonders of couch surfing – and by delving, I mean travelling through 58 countries using only couch surfing as a means of accommodation. And while he was on this two-year jaunt, he took the opportunity to also take pictures of other kids and their toys along the way.
The personal project proved to be a faithful companion to Gabriele’s couch-surfing commission, introducing him to myriad people irrespective of culture, language or wealth. Each week, he’d report back to D La Republicca regarding his latest couch surf, then in his spare time, he’d work on capturing what would eventually become thousands of portraits to make up the series. As a consequence, Toy Stories features the children, nieces, nephews and neighbours of his hosts on this mammoth trip. Candidly photographed in the space they most like to play, the extensive body of work has recently been published in a new book of the same title. Published by Abrams Books, it’s a delightful throwback to the toy cars, doe-eyed puppies, princess outfits, games consoles, Lego, plastic food, and scary baby dolls of yesteryear. And that’s not even the half of it.
Not content with shooting two huge projects while on his globe-trotting trip, Gabriele took the time to complete a third vast and fascinating series. Just before he was about to embark on the two-year-long couch-surfing trip, Gabriele’s family was a little worried; the thought of him spending all that time away in strangers’ houses surrounded by unfamiliar tongues. As for Gabriele’s grandmother, she was more worried about what he was going to eat. She implored her grandson, “You should stay at home. I can cook for you,” and he replied with a laugh, “You know what Grandma? There are many grandmothers all over the world who I’m sure would be happy to feed me and cook something special for me.” So he also went and found them on this trip.
When he wasn’t busy with the couch-surfing series or photographing kids for Toy Stories, therefore, Gabriele sat down with grandmothers all over the world, sampling their signature dishes along the way, culminating in a series titled In Her Kitchen. Stylistically, the compositions in Toy Stories and In Her Kitchen are similar. The image is controlled, brightly lit and considered. Cooking ingredients or the neatly displayed toys are always evenly spaced out with care in front of the subject. The photographs could be described as borderline sterile in their Wes Anderson-like curation, but it’s the intriguing relationship between sitter, their objects, and the cultural context that devours our attention.
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Gabriele Galimberti: Toy Stories
Maudy lives in Zambia. She’s the cheerful soul with wild hair standing in front of a flat dusty road, shoulders slightly raised, with a few dozen pairs of sunglasses at her feet. “I was in this village in the northern part of the country,” Gabriele recalls. “A place where there is no electricity, no running water and of course no toy stores.” The children tend to play outside in the sun with anything they can find and a couple of days before the photographer came upon the remote village, Maudy found a box of sunglasses along the main road. Her mother told Gabriele they may have fallen from a truck. Regardless of where they came from, by the look of glee on young Maudy’s face, their serendipitous discovery was total bliss to her.
GalleryGabriele Galimberti: Toy Stories
Elsewhere, nearly 8,000 miles north of Zambia, Taha and his family are living in Beirut. The young Palestinian boy and his family reside in a refugee camp of sorts just outside of the Lebanese capital. The only toy in his possession is a little car, and when Gabriele went to take it from him to arrange the photograph, his crying went from “a lot” to “even more,” says Gabriele. “He didn’t want to pose for me,” and after 15 minutes of tears, he was ready to give up. “I didn’t want to let him cry so much, I felt bad!”
This, however, was not an option for Taha’s mother. She declared that there had to be a Palestinian child in the project, and that it had to be her son. So with that, Gabriele had no choice. It took nearly two hours to convince Taha to pose for the project, and in the end, his tears dried for approximately three minutes –fortunately, just enough time to get the shot.
GalleryGabriele Galimberti: Toy Stories
Toy Stories is just as much a study in class, geographical privilege, and inequality as it is about the nostalgia of toys. But that’s not to say that the children with fewer toys are any less content than those with dozens. Fundamentally, the series is about what kinds of objects bring comfort to children no matter where or how they live, regardless of socioeconomic status. Because, at the root of it all – beyond their material, size or shape – that’s what toys are all about.
When it came to gaining their trust with these sacred objects, in most cases (unlike Taha’s), it was pretty easy. “I simply played with them!” says Gabriele, who often had a little help from their parents, of course. Sometimes, all it took was for the photographer to whip out his phone and show the youngsters images of previous participants. “I was really surprised to see how easy it was for children to understand my project,” he says. And this is the beauty of Toy Stories – its meaning is understood in one awe-inspired glance, accessible beyond language or culture. Without any waffle whatsoever, in this candid heartfelt documentation, Gabriele captures the things we love most when we are most free from inhibition.
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.