Material Possessions

I can’t stop thinking of the book Material Possessions by Peter Menzel. The book came out in 1994-the United Nations Year of the Family. It is one of those photo essays companies like National Geographic are so good at producing. Each page features a full color photograph of an average family from a different country posing with all their material possessions. I think the point of the book must have been to show the absurdity of people in westernized countries owning 4 televisions or piles of Barbie dolls while others went without what we would consider basic necessities. But what really struck me was the absence of a place to put these things. The objects and the families themselves were arranged in the yard or street in front of their homes or in a vacant lot or city block outside their apartment buildings. The house or structure that sheltered them and their things was only, if at all, available to the onlooker on the periphery but was frustratingly unavailable to the reader who had squeezed her face so tightly against the small display window in order to take in as much as available from the outside.

The photographs in this book bothered me-just as much as an empty house might bother an inhabitant who doesn’t have any way to furnish her home. It didn’t matter that one family had three cars and another only a goat (if these things are even comparable). In either case, the cars and the goat are in equal need of a place to rest-and these pictures did not show how they would be kept, how they would be used or not used by the families that kept them. Would it not have been more practical to give an aerial view of each societies system of shelter and allow the viewer to imagine what might be in them?

On our brief tour of Biloxi, Mississippi we drove by homes wet with black mold and sewage and other homes that were only piles of dusty rubble. But the ones I found most provocative were those few that had been sliced neatly in half, vertically or as was more often the case, horizontally along the slab foundations of basement-less flood country.
One house, leaning precariously to one side was sliced along its’ center seam, eliminating the doors whose hinges must have stuck out past the neat line. The cut revealed a closet full of sport coats still neatly on their hangers. The slab foundation of another house, cleared of debris after the rain and wind had passed provided a solid patio for a found table and chairs and a place to gather things once lost: Christmas ornaments, fine china, dolls, canned goods, a bathtub.

These section and plan views have the look not of something destroyed in totality but of the hurricane having dug its hands deep into the foundation in order to work the structure inside out. It is not a scene of haphazard destruction but rather a meticulously violent reorganization of structures that leaves me to squirm uncomfortably in my seat and wish again that I had instead been offered that aerial shot—a position from which I can give my imagination free reign to structure these people’s lives in an easier and more coherent way.

Emily Sieracki

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