Where the Children Sleep: shifting perspectives with a tilt-shift lens

A blonde five-year-old girl lies on a green printed mattress, a hand stroking her hair
Maha and her family fled from the village of Hawiga outside Mosul, Iraq. The fear of IS and the lack of food meant they had to leave their home. Here, Maha lay on a dirty mattress in the overflowing transit tent of Debaga Refugee Camp. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon TS-E 45mm f/2.8 lens. © Magnus Wennman

Five-year-old refugee Maha in her makeshift bed is one of the subjects photographed by Swedish photojournalist and Canon Ambassador Magnus Wennman, for his long-term project Where the Children Sleep. He says the series is about "children who are forced to escape their homes because of the war in Syria and Iraq, and the places where they now sleep, the dreams that they have and their hopes for the future."

From grassy verges to hospital beds, city pavements to refugee camps, Magnus photographed the places where the young children, whose lives have been tragically affected by war, rest their heads. The project has seen him travel across the Middle East and much of Europe, visiting countries including Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey.

Canon Professional Services

Do you own Canon kit?

Register your kit to access free expert advice, equipment servicing, inspirational events and exclusive special offers with Canon Professional Services

"For me, this project has been a way to understand war and to get other people to understand it a bit better," Magnus says. "When you live in a country like Sweden – where we haven't had a war for 200 years – it's almost impossible to understand war. However, what I can understand is the relationship between a father and a child, or a child and a parent. Therefore, almost the only way that I can understand war is through the eyes of a child."

The striking image of Maha (top image) gained global attention when it won first prize at last year's World Press Photo Awards in the People single image category. The event also recognised Magnus' film, Fatima's Drawings, about another young refugee (watch it below). As well as fundraising for the UN Refugee Agency, Magnus' hope is that his photographs – shot in his trademark soft, milky style achieved with his Canon tilt-shift lens – will move people.

"My aim is to get people to care about this conflict and about what's going on," he says of his series, where some of the youngsters' gazes meet the camera, forcing an uneasy connection with their plight. "You see images like these in the news, but it's easy to look away. For me as a father, it's very hard to close my eyes when I see children sleeping in the forest or having to steal apples from trees just to get something to eat. It's very hard to see. It is a complicated conflict – wars are complicated. But it's not complicated to understand that children need a safe place to sleep."

During his 17 years as a staff photographer at the national Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, Magnus has covered everything from local news and sports to major international events, including Obama's 2008 US election campaign and victory. Today, the photographer aims to focus more on longer-term projects that cover social issues, news and war around the world.

For Magnus, cameras are mainly "a tool to tell a story," so the little equipment he carries has to perform well. He finds his Canon EOS-1D X, Canon EOS 5D Mark III and Canon EOS 5D Mark IV suit his needs for all of his work.

"Most of the time I'm working outside and I don't want to carry a lot of equipment, so normally I have the Canon EOS-1D X with a 24-70mm lens over my shoulder and another camera in my backpack," he says. "I bring a sound recorder and perhaps a tripod – that's pretty much it. I've always used Canon. Even when I film, I use the same cameras I do with still photography. They work perfectly for me."

A five-year-old girl with brown hair lies on a bed wearing an orange jumper. Sunlight from a window falls on her
Five-year-old Tamam was scared of her pillow and cried every night at bedtime, Magnus was told. The air raids on her hometown of Homs, Syria, usually took place at night, and even after two years away, she still didn't realise that her pillow wasn't the source of danger. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with a Canon TS-E 45mm f/2.8 lens. © Magnus Wennman
Two small children lie on flattened cardboard boxes by a wall in a dark, quiet street, wearing pink coats
Magnus met Ralia, seven, and Rahaf, 13, living on the streets of Beirut, Lebanon. They and their father had been sleeping rough for a year when Magnus photographed them, after a grenade killed their mother and brother in their hometown of Damascus, Syria. They huddled close together on their cardboard boxes. Rahaf said she was scared of "bad boys," at which Ralia started crying. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with a Canon TS-E 45mm f/2.8 lens. © Magnus Wennman
A black-and-white image shows an open suitcase containing pictures of children and letters

Magnum nominee Diana Markosian's best advice

The photographer's career could have taken an entirely different turn, had it not been for an important insight she learned from a movie.

As well as finding children and families with stories that would move people, the Canon TS-E 45mm f/2.8 lens that Magnus favoured for the project helped him to create portraits that would provoke empathy. The 45mm focal length offered a similarly natural-looking angle to that of a 50mm standard lens; but because tilt-shift mechanisms provide complete control over depth of field and perspective, Magnus could also use the lens to pull attention onto his subjects' expressions, body language or surroundings to suit his compositions.

"It's the perfect lens for these kinds of portraits," he says. "I use the 'tilt and shift' functions to be able to control and put more focus on the person, and to separate them from the background." The effect is dream-like, at times creating a whimsical effect that poetically alludes to the innocence of the children who find themselves displaced by war.

A small girl lies asleep in a woodland, under heaps of blankets. The image is soft and dreamlike
In Serbia, five-year-old Lamar and her family were left homeless after their house was destroyed by a bomb. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon TS-E 45mm f/2.8 lens. © Magnus Wennman
A blonde child lies with her head on a red pillow, looking at the camera
Walaa, aged five, told Magnus that she wanted to go home. She had her own room in Aleppo, Syria, and never used to cry at bedtime there, she said. In the refugee camp, she cried every night. Resting her head on the pillow was horrible, she said, because nighttime was horrible. That was when the attacks happened in Aleppo. By day, Walaa's mother often built a little house out of pillows, to teach her that they were nothing to be afraid of. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with a Canon TS-E 45mm f/2.8 lens. © Magnus Wennman

While still photography is always at the core of his work, Magnus has embraced the art of multimedia. He has experimented with shooting 360-degree film and virtual reality while covering the devastating famine in East Africa for the charity Save the Children. "When I started as a photojournalist, I only did still photography," he says. "Today we have endless opportunities to tell stories, so I work a lot with video and sound. I see myself as a visual storyteller who's always trying to find the best way to tell the story I'm working on.

"I've mainly been a stills photographer, but if I believe that the story would be better communicated through video, I choose video. When I was working on Where the Children Sleep, I met one young girl who now lives in Sweden, called Fatima. She used to draw pictures of her old home in Syria, and tell me amazing stories about it. I decided to do a film about her, which is a good example of how I use video and stills together in the same project."

A small child lies on a grey bed under a grey wooden blanket that they have pulled up to cover most of their face. Their eyes are wide open, looking straight up at the ceiling
When Magnus met Fara, aged two, in Azraq, Jordan, she loved soccer. Her dad tried to make balls for her by crumpling up anything he could find, but they didn't last long. Every night, he said goodnight to Fara and her big sister Tisam, nine, in the hope that tomorrow would bring them a proper ball to play with. All other dreams seemed to be beyond his reach, he explained, but he was not giving up on this one. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with a Canon TS-E 45mm f/2.8 lens. © Magnus Wennman
A mother holds her sleeping baby as she sits against a metal gate, covering her face in distress.
At the border between Serbia and Hungary, one-year-old Sham lay in his mother's arms by a four-metre-high iron gate. Directly behind the gate was Europe, which they were desperately trying to reach. Only one day before, the last refugees were allowed through and taken by train to Austria. But Sham and his mother arrived too late, along with thousands of other refugees. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon TS-E 45mm f/2.8 lens. © Magnus Wennman

The opportunities presented by multimedia lead Magnus to be hopeful for the future of photojournalism. "The new generation of photojournalists will work in a completely different way to the old photojournalists," he says. "I think if you're open-minded as a young person and want to do visual storytelling, you have a really bright future. Visual storytelling is getting more and more important everywhere."

While he's been one of the fortunate few to maintain a job as a staff press photographer for a significant length of time, he sees the positive side of the scarcity of such jobs. "I'm very lucky to work on a newspaper that still puts a lot of resources into photojournalism. It turns out it was a good decision by the newspaper, because we're still doing well," he says. "However, because there are not that many staff jobs any more, photojournalism today has become much more democratic. Everybody can do it, not only the people who work at newspapers."

As for his personal highlights, across his work for Aftonbladet and National Geographic, Magnus hopes he's stirring some kind of change. "As a photojournalist, you want to tell stories in a way that people not only understand, but really take to their hearts. If you succeed with that, I believe you've come a long way."

Autor Lucy Fulford

Magnus Wennman’s kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

A Canon EOS 5D Mark IV sits against a black background


Canon EOS-1D X Mark II

With its high-sensitivity 20.2MP full-frame CMOS sensor, expanded 61-point Dual Pixel AF system and 4K video capture, the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II delivers class-leading performance. "Even when I film, I use the same cameras I do with still photography," says Magnus.


Canon TS-E 45mm f/2.8

The TS-E 45mm f/2.8 is a tilt-and-shift lens offering an angle of view similar to that of a 50mm standard lens. "I use the 'tilt and shift' to be able to control and put more focus on the person, and to separate them from the background," says Magnus.

Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM

This professional-quality standard zoom lens offers outstanding image sharpness and a robust L-series build. Magnus says: "Normally I have the Canon EOS-1D X with a 24-70mm lens over my shoulder and another camera in my backpack."

Get the newsletter

Click here to get inspiring stories and exciting news from Canon Europe Pro

Sign up now