The Guardian view on Steve McQueen’s Year 3 project: a portrait of hope

Photograph: Guy Bell/REX/Shutterstock

An unashamedly joyful sign greets visitors at the entrance of Tate Britain in London. “The gallery is full of children!” it reads. The young people are here to see the fruits of a project by the artist and film-maker Steve McQueen. His idea was to photograph as many of London’s year seven- to eight-year-olds as possible. The result is 3,000 class photographs depicting 76,000 children in Tate Britain’s majestic Duveen galleries. To find the pictures, the visitor need only follow sound of excited children as they gaze at the images of themselves and their peers, make notes and drawings in workbooks, and explore the rest of the museum’s collection.

Year 3, as the project is named, is an idea of immense simplicity and great potency. The class photograph as an entity is so poignant: simultaneously generic in its composition and singular in the story it tells about one group of people at one particular moment.

And then there is this project’s sheer scale. The photos represent two-thirds of London’s seven- to eight-year-olds together with their class teachers; they come from state and private primaries, special educational needs schools, and pupil referral units. Taken together, the exhibit is probably a racist’s nightmare: Year 3 is a picture of the city in all its tremendous diversity. The children will have the powerful experience of seeing faces like their own on the walls of a major art institution. For several weeks some of the photographs will also appear on advertising hoardings around the city. Seeing these images at sites usually reserved for aspirational products creates a powerful signal that ordinary lives, in all their beautiful and unvarnished reality, are truly worthy of attention.

As a picture of contemporary London, the project has an echo of the Mass Observation projects of the mid-20th century. There are kids in wheelchairs, kids with topknots, kids with headscarves. There are gap-toothed smiles and cheeky grins. Kids who look poor, and kids who look rich. There are school uniforms that look more suited to a Harry Potter story than a modern capital city. The children are photographed against simple backdrops that nevertheless can give subtle clues to a school’s ethos – from antique, polished-wood panelling to artwork about storybooks to displays about Britishness.

The work, for all its simplicity, was logistically complex. Consent was needed from every caregiver. The shoots, by teams of Tate photographers, were not undertaken “cold”, but accompanied by education projects so that children felt involved in the project. Some schools, under financial pressure, were unable to take part. McQueen is a Londoner, and the work has great personal resonance for him: while it is tempting to hope for a nationwide Year 3 project, perhaps it might be taken not as a prototype but as an indicator of the potential for public artworks that reflect communities with depth and dignity. Year 3 is the portrait of a city – or rather of a city’s potential. It is a portrait, above all, of hope.