Striking Photo Series Depicts The Worries Of Fourth-Grade Students Around The World

Some worry about grades. Others are focused on survival.

Who do you live with? What do you wish for? What do you worry about?

Those were the three simple questions photographer and social activist Judy Gelles posed to a bunch of fourth-grade students from Philadelphia back in 2007, hoping to improve their reading skills.

Since then, the same three questions have taken Judy all around the world — from Italy to South Korea to the Caribbean — and encouraged her to explore what it means to be a child in today's cultural and socioeconomic environment with a thought-provoking photo series, "The Fourth Grade Project."

"I worry about world hunger and global warming." —  United States

"My mom was born in Uruguay. Her parents moved to the United States to make more money. I am an only child but soon will be adopting a baby girl from China. I am excited to meet her. I wish the whole world would be one large empire so there would be no more war. I worry about world hunger and global warming. My life is good. I feel lucky."
"My mom was born in Uruguay. Her parents moved to the United States to make more money. I am an only child but soon will be adopting a baby girl from China. I am excited to meet her. I wish the whole world would be one large empire so there would be no more war. I worry about world hunger and global warming. My life is good. I feel lucky." ©judygelles Images courtesy of Pentimenti Gallery, Philadelphia and DeSoto Gallery, Los Angeles

"I worry about people in my family getting shot." — United States

"I worry about people in my family getting shot. My cousin got shot and died. I don't think anybody should carry a gun... Even the cops. Then nobody would get shot."
"I worry about people in my family getting shot. My cousin got shot and died. I don't think anybody should carry a gun... Even the cops. Then nobody would get shot." ©judygelles Images courtesy of Pentimenti Gallery, Philadelphia and DeSoto Gallery, Los Angeles

The questions behind Gelles' project might sound simple, especially when posed to 9-year-olds. Their answers, however, were far from ordinary ...

Over the past eight years, Gelles interviewed and photographed over 300 fourth-grade students from the U.S., China, India, Italy, England, Saint Lucia, South Africa, and South Korea, all coming from a wide range of backgrounds.

Gelles admits that the huge differences in their answers were shocking — while some kids were concerned about global warming, others were worrying day and night about their families' immediate safety.

"I worry about forgetting my lines in the school play." — England

"I live with my mum, dad, brother, and two fish. My mum is an accountant and my dad owns a pharmacy. I have an auntie in America and would like to visit her. I love to read about myths. My wish is for a sports car. I worry about forgetting my lines in the school play."
"I live with my mum, dad, brother, and two fish. My mum is an accountant and my dad owns a pharmacy. I have an auntie in America and would like to visit her. I love to read about myths. My wish is for a sports car. I worry about forgetting my lines in the school play." ©judygelles Images courtesy of Pentimenti Gallery, Philadelphia and DeSoto Gallery, Los Angeles

"I worry about my grades. I want to please my parents." – Italy

"My father is a handyman and my mother works in accounting. My wish is to have another sister. I like big families. I worry about my grades. I want to please my parents."
"My father is a handyman and my mother works in accounting. My wish is to have another sister. I like big families. I worry about my grades. I want to please my parents." ©judygelles Images courtesy of Pentimenti Gallery, Philadelphia and DeSoto Gallery, Los Angeles

Gelles says her project made her realize that all of these kids were living in tiny social bubbles, without ever exploring a reality different from their own.

"We live in a global society where interconnectedness is everywhere in this digital era. Yet the schools that I have been visiting are more homogenous now than in the past," she told A Plus.

"I worry about getting a good job." — Saint Lucia

"I live with my mother, brother, and cousin. We have different fathers. I wish for a 90+ average on the test. Last year I got 89,22. I worry about getting a good job. I want to be a fourth-grade teacher."
"I live with my mother, brother, and cousin. We have different fathers. I wish for a 90+ average on the test. Last year I got 89,22. I worry about getting a good job. I want to be a fourth-grade teacher." ©judygelles Images courtesy of Pentimenti Gallery, Philadelphia and DeSoto Gallery, Los Angeles

"I am scared of snakes. If a snake bites you, you could die." — India

"I live with my mother, older brother, and grandmother. My father is an electrician and works in Qatar. He comes home once a year. I wish my father was home more. I miss him. I am scared of snakes. If a snake bites you, you could die. I speak five languages. When I grow up, I want to be a cricket player."
"I live with my mother, older brother, and grandmother. My father is an electrician and works in Qatar. He comes home once a year. I wish my father was home more. I miss him. I am scared of snakes. If a snake bites you, you could die. I speak five languages. When I grow up, I want to be a cricket player." ©judygelles Images courtesy of Pentimenti Gallery, Philadelphia and DeSoto Gallery, Los Angeles

Gelles says the goal of "The Fourth Grade Project" was to "bridge cultural differences and foster a strong, tolerant student community."

That's why her biggest hope is for schools to institute a similar exercise in curriculums so that children can interact with cultures and people that might otherwise be out of their reach.

"Nine-year-old children are on the cusp of adolescence. They are socially conscious, interested in helping others, and openly curious about the world. The Fourth Grade Project allows students to learn about others' lives in a uniquely personal way and to use the project as a catalyst for their own explorations," Gelles says.

"I worry about exams. I don't want to disappoint my parents." — South Korea

"I am an only child. My father is a businessman and my mother is a banker. My grandmother takes care of me. My mother comes home late. My wish is to have more time with my mother. I worry about exams. I don't want to disappoint my parents."
"I am an only child. My father is a businessman and my mother is a banker. My grandmother takes care of me. My mother comes home late. My wish is to have more time with my mother. I worry about exams. I don't want to disappoint my parents." ©judygelles Images courtesy of Pentimenti Gallery, Philadelphia and DeSoto Gallery, Los Angeles

"I worry about everything, my grades, and even what to wear in the morning." — United States

"My mom stays home and my dad works at the pizza restaurant. We have no Internet or cable. I play outside on my trampoline. I worry about everything, my grades, and even what to wear in the morning. I wish my parents would stop smoking. I have asthma."
"My mom stays home and my dad works at the pizza restaurant. We have no Internet or cable. I play outside on my trampoline. I worry about everything, my grades, and even what to wear in the morning. I wish my parents would stop smoking. I have asthma." ©judygelles Images courtesy of Pentimenti Gallery, Philadelphia and DeSoto Gallery, Los Angeles

"I am scared that one day I will be murdered." — South Africa

"I speak Zulu and English. My father is a policeman and carries a gun. Our house has a wall around it with electrical wire. My wish is that everybody stop fighting with each other; at home, at school, and in the world. I am scared that one day I will be murdered."
"I speak Zulu and English. My father is a policeman and carries a gun. Our house has a wall around it with electrical wire. My wish is that everybody stop fighting with each other; at home, at school, and in the world. I am scared that one day I will be murdered." ©judygelles Images courtesy of Pentimenti Gallery, Philadelphia and DeSoto Gallery, Los Angeles

"I worry about hurting someone and my parents will have to pay for medical treatment." — China

"I live with my mother and father. My older sister lives with my aunt in my hometown. I wish my whole family could be together. I worry about doing something wrong and upsetting my parents. I worry about hurting someone and my parents will have to pay for medical treatment."
"I live with my mother and father. My older sister lives with my aunt in my hometown. I wish my whole family could be together. I worry about doing something wrong and upsetting my parents. I worry about hurting someone and my parents will have to pay for medical treatment." ©judygelles Images courtesy of Pentimenti Gallery, Philadelphia and DeSoto Gallery, Los Angeles

"I worry that I am always forgetting something." — United States

"My parents are divorced. I live with my mom Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and with my dad Friday, Saturday, Sunday. I wish everyone stop fighting. I worry that I am always forgetting something. Sometimes I leave something at my father's house and then I don't have it."
"My parents are divorced. I live with my mom Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and with my dad Friday, Saturday, Sunday. I wish everyone stop fighting. I worry that I am always forgetting something. Sometimes I leave something at my father's house and then I don't have it." ©judygelles Images courtesy of Pentimenti Gallery, Philadelphia and DeSoto Gallery, Los Angeles

Check out this TEDx video to hear the full story behind "The Fourth Grade Project."

Judy Gelles is represented by Pentimenti Gallery, Philadelphia and DeSoto Gallery, Los Angeles.

All images courtesy of Pentimenti Gallery, Philadelphia.