Narayan Mahon

Teaching Page

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Narayan Mahon, Playground, Lefkosa, Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, 2008. Archival pigment print, 24 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

This teaching page is a resource for your classroom. Here, you can find information on the artthe artistkey ideasdiscussion questions, and additional resources. You can also download a large image of Playground, Lefkosa, Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

The Art

Crouching atop a simple and well-worn slide, a young boy stares warily at the viewer. The slide, an iconic emblem of childhood play and freedom, stands alone in a yard strewn with leaves and debris and overgrown with weeds. Ragged, graffiti-painted cinderblock and brick walls and structures with corrugated metal roofs border the playground. In the middle ground, a large tree with shimmering light coming through its leaves frames the boy and the slide, while a much smaller palm tree hints at the broader environment on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, where Narayan Mahon’s photograph, Playground, Lefkosa, Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, was taken.

The area of modern-day Cyprus has been a contested region for centuries. Most recently, conflict over territory and sovereignty has arisen between the ethnically Turkish and ethnically Greek Cypriots. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus—a self-declared state—is only acknowledged by Turkey as an autonomous country, while the rest of the international community considers it part of the ethnically Greek-controlled Republic of Cyprus. This photograph, from 2008, was created the same year that reunification negotiations, following presidential elections in the Republic of Cyprus, were reinitiated. These negotiations were ultimately somewhat successful, as some of the barriers were removed between the two conflicted zones. Since then, negotiations are on-going and there is continued hope for a peaceful solution.

That tension is evident in the two contradictory themes that arise in the photograph. The unkempt appearance of the playground characterized by the debris and weeds, the simple and shabby materials of the walls surrounding the scene, and the peeling, faded paint of the yellow slide indicate that this is not a playground that is well-cared for. Additionally, the expression on the face of the boy might suggest that although he is in a space made for play, he, at this moment in time, is not having fun. However, though unkempt, there is a playground in this contested land, a place specifically designated for use and enjoyment by children, giving them an opportunity to forget about their worries and engage in fun and games. The slide’s brightly painted colors point towards its purpose as a means for fun. Though somber-faced, the appearance of the young boy might also suggest that despite the hardships suffered in Northern Cyprus, he is cared for—he appears to have well-fitting clothes and shoes, and is clean and seemingly healthy—and has the opportunity to play. The playground gives the boy the chance to spend time away and above the conflict in a space where there are bright colors and soft light filtering through the trees.

The focal point of the photograph is almost entirely on the crouching boy. Mahon created this emphasis by framing the boy within the brighter colors and geometric lines of the slide, which contrast with the organic and indistinct shapes in the middle and backgrounds. While the colors of the boy’s clothing are neutral tones—similar to those of the sand, the shrubs, the trees, and the structures of the background—the bright red geometric frame and scraped yellow slide draw the viewer’s eye directly to the boy. Though his body and face are angled away from the viewer his sad eyes and the sunlight that reflects off his face arrest our attention and anchor our viewing on that part of the photograph. Mahon has also carefully modulated the focus of the image. The extreme foreground, the middle ground, and background are slightly out of focus, again placing the emphasis of the image squarely on the boy, who is sharply in focus.

Narayan Mahon has travelled the world to document unrecognized countries for his photographic series, Lands in Limbo. In these contested lands, a child can play at a playground, men go to the barbershop, people wait in line to vote, and laundry dries in the sun. The tension between these everyday activities and the hardships of life in places like Northern Cyprus is poignantly represented in Playground, Lefkosa, Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which drives home that these conflicts not only reside in the politics of adults, but in the lives of children.

The Artist

Narahan Mahon’s interest in politically contested lands dates back to 2005, when he began studying these regions while in school at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Partially funded by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, he began his photography project in earnest while in graduate school at Syracuse University. Following school he lived and worked in Istanbul, Turkey; he currently resides in Madison, Wisconsin. His creative output includes, among other works, large-scale documentary projects like Lands and Limbo; a travel project entitled Around the World, where he recorded his travel to 95 countries through 80 photographs; local subjects such as a series on Supper Clubs; and commercial photography, including for companies such as Trek Bicycles and Culver’s. Mahon’s work has been recognized in the New York Times and on National Public Radio, among others. One of his photographs was chosen for the American Photography 30 by American Illustration – American Photography, and he has been awarded an American Advertising Award (an ADDY) by the American Advertising Federation.

Key Ideas

  • The use of contrast, color, line, shape, and the modulation of focus to create a focal point and draw the viewer’s eye around an image
  • Documenting the effects of political conflict on everyday life
  • The universality of children’s desire to play
  • The desire for normalcy despite obstacles imposed by external forces

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you think the boy is enjoying himself on the slide? Why or why not? What aspects of his appearance suugest how he might feel?
  2. How does this photo make you feel?
  3. How does this playground compare to other playgrounds you have seen or played at? How is it similar? How is it different?
  4. What do you see in the background? Why do you think Mahon chose to make the background so indistinct? Does it affect how you see the boy and the slide, and if so, how?
  5. The boy seems to be alone; how is that similar to or different from how children in your community play on a playground? Why do you think the boy is alone and how would it change the image if there was another child or an adult in the scene?
  6. The boy seems to be looking at us, the viewer; however, does it change our understanding of his expression or possible emotions when we consider that when this photograph was taken, he was looking at the photographer, Narayan Mahon? If so, how?


On the artist:

Narayan Mahon website
New Nations Living in Limbo, New York Times article
To the Best of Our Knowledge radio interview

Art Methods:

Learning to Look, Center for Creative Photography 


Times Topics: Cyprus
Northern Cyprus