Monday, March 15, 2010

Material World - Peter Menzel & Faith D'Aluisio

Material World is a beautiful book - Peter Mezel and Faith D'Aluisio, along with many other photographers and translators, went around the world convincing statistically average families in 36 different countries to empty all their possessions out of their houses, arrange them artistically on the street out front, and have their pictures taken. The results are stunning and quite beautiful. Included with each photo is an inventory - which was really useful because the pictures are so full of things that it is very easy to miss what you are looking at. Having a list really helped to realize what it was I was actually seeing.

They really did go all over the world, to rich countries and very poor countries, cultures that looked very familiar to me, and cultures that were radically different. They also asked what people's most prized possessions were, and what things they most wanted to acquire. Reading it and looking at everyone's stuff, I couldn't help but imagine what my stuff would look like all in a pile. It was a bit of a shock honestly, because compared with a lot of people I know, we don't actually have all that much stuff (as long as you overlook the books), but until I saw these photos I hadn't really included "washer and dryer" in the list of things that are "mine", mostly because they are things that came with our condo, and that I would leave behind if we were to sell it. One family had even arranged their photo so that their toilet was in the picture! It was a prized possession! Many of them included sheep or goats. Large plastic tubs used mainly for washing clothes. Carpets. (Does wall-to-wall carpeting count as a possession? It probably should). It really made me appreciate how fantastically wealthy we are here, and how easy it is to take for granted.

Something else I tended to do when looking at the pictures was to count the people, and then count the beds (you have to be careful and check in the end notes for the list of things which were not taken out of the houses - often at least one bed was attached to a wall). In Canada most children have their own bedrooms. In a lot of these pictures, the kids didn't even have their own beds! Many of these families were living together in a single room. Often meals get cooked over an open fire.

The story which struck me the most was the Bosnian family. Parents, daughter, son-in-law, and grand-daughter were all living together in a one bedroom apartment. In the photo were several UN soldiers with guns. Their apartment had bullet holes in the walls. The daughter and her husband used to live in a suburb, but had moved back with her parents when the fighting started. The mattresses in the photo weren't used for sleeping on, but as protection from stray bullets. These people used to lead lives very much like my own, but were now living like refuges. They had recently replaced their gas stove with a wood-burning stove (in a 3rd floor apartment!) because gas was no longer available.

Women in the Material World is its own separate book, but is separate interviews with many of the women from the Material World book. It is a much more detailed look at their lives and hopes. It really emphasized just how lucky I am. Many of these women spend their time washing clothes by hand, often in water they have carried home from the well. Sometimes in a nearby river or drainage ditch - which didn't look nearly clean enough to be washing anything in. Most of them didn't have access to supermarkets fully stocked with convenience food - often they had to harvest the grain themselves. All of them had dreams of better and brighter futures for their daughters - most of the children were in school and working hard, but in some of the poorer families the daughters were at home helping because they were needed - and the money to send them to school just wasn't available.

There isn't a single country with total equality between men and women. We're getting closer here, and there is lots of evidence of just how far we have come in these stories. Most of these women lead better lives than their mothers did, with more freedom, fewer children, more choices. It helps me understand how amazingly lucky I am, to be where I am, with the choices I have. To still be in school at age 34, with a husband who does almost all of the work around the house. Until I got to university and was in a class with almost no women, did I realize that most women don't pursue mathematics. And it is a testament to the people who brought me up that I didn't consider it a problem in the slightest. I'm now starting to see that things are often harder for women, and that things may be harder for me in the future...but I have so many wonderful female role models.

There is a huge difference between knowing that most of the world doesn't live the way we do, and actually seeing it. These photos brought these families to life. They are all supposedly "statistically average" families - I guess they have the average number of children, and an average income, but the focus of the stories and the interviews was on these people as individuals rather than asking them to describe what their countries are like. I'm not sure that the "average" person actually exists. Seeing these little glimpses of the lives of people all over the world, seeing their personalities shining through, was really wonderful.

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