Material World: A Portrait of the World’s Possessions
By Maria Popova
We’re longtime fans of photojournalist Peter Menzel, whose visual anthropology captures the striking span of humanity’s socioeconomic and cultural spectrum. His Hungry Planet and What I Eat portrayed the world’s sustenance with remarkable graphic eloquence, and today we’re turning to some of his earliest work, doing the same for the world’s shelter: Material World: A Global Family Portrait — an engrossing visual time-capsule of life in 30 countries, captured by 16 of the world’s leading photographers.
In each of the 30 countries, Menzel found a statistically average family and photographed them outside their home, with all of their belongings. The result is an incredible cross-cultural quilt of possessions, from the utilitarian to the sentimental, revealing the faceted and varied ways in which we use “stuff” to make sense of the world and our place in it.
Freelancing in Somalia during their civil war and in Kuwait right after the first Bush War, I had some rather intense experiences that made life in the U.S. seem rather shallow and superfluous. Sitting in my office early one morning, listening to NPR, which is the way I like to start every day, I heard an amazing piece on the marketing of Madonna’s autobiographic book called SEX. The book was a sensation in the U.S. The radio report ended with Madonna singing, ‘I am living in a material world and I am just a material girl,’ or something close. I thought it was spot on. We live in an idiotic capitalist self-indulgent society where the sex life of a pop star is more important than impending starvation, land mines and child soldiers in Africa, or more interesting than the world’s biggest man-made natural disaster in oil fields of the Middle East.” ~ Peter Menzel
Originally published in 1995, Material World was a massive undertaking that cost Menzel $600,000, which he scrapped together by refinancing his house, maxing out all his credit cards, and patchworking various small loans from friends — a feat in and of itself, and curious meta-evidence for the material world we live in, where even creating meaningful social commentary on materiality and excess has an excessive material cost of its own.
And for an excellent companion read, see Menzel’s 1998 follow-up, Women in the Material World — a fascinating look at an even more intimate aspect of the human family.
Published April 8, 2011