A Camera's-Eye View: Our 'Material World.' (Profiles of Families in 'Material World: A Global Family Portrait')

By Endrst, Elsa B. | UN Chronicle, June 1995 | Go to article overview
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A Camera's-Eye View: Our 'Material World.' (Profiles of Families in 'Material World: A Global Family Portrait')


Endrst, Elsa B., UN Chronicle


Award-winning American photojournalist Peter Menzel sees his book, "Material World: A Global Family Portrait", as a rich, visual tapestry, documenting the close of the twentieth century. In an up-close and revealing way, the photographic essay focuses on portraits of average families from some 30 nations, shown outside their homes, surrounded by thee material possessions. The text and pictures together provide a view not only of what they own, but also of their lifestyles. economies, cultures and values.

Yale University Professor Paul Kennedy calls Mr. Menzel's project "a bold and imaginative experiment, an attempt to capture, through photos and statistics, both the common humanity of peoples inhabiting our earth and the great differences in material goods and circumstances that make rich and poor societies".

The book, published in 1994, was assembled with UN help as a contribution to the International Year of the Family. Many of the photographs were exhibited at UN Headquarters last year as part of the preparatory process leading to the World Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II), to be held in Istanbul, Turkey in June 1996.

Mr. Menzel got the idea for the name of his book from the words of American rock star Madonna's song, "Material Girl". With information from the UN, the World Bank and an independent research company, he created profiles of "statistically average" families that he chose for his subjects for the project.

He began by photographing families in japan, South Africa and Mali. Then he assembled a team of expert photojournalists from seven countries, travelling the world and shooting 2,000 rolls of film and more than 100 hours of video tape. He selected the countries from a list of UN Member States; only one declined to participate in the project.

One family Mr. Menzel found especially interesting was the Regzens from Mongolia, a traditionally nomadic society, which now has more than 60 per cent of its citizens living in urban areas.

Used to living in their "gers"--portable tents used over the centuries so the nomadic herdsmen could follow their animals to new grazing grounds--the urban dwellers of Mongolia, Mr. Menzel says. now live on little plots of land, still using these tents as their dwelling. hen they get enough money", he says, "they will probably build a permanent house modest. more like a shack, but somewhat more comfortable than what they had before."

Teasets in the tent

The Regzen family includes father, mother two children, the father's sister and her daughter, as well as the wife's sister and her husband. Most of the family is shown in front of their tent, surrounded by their possessions, including a china cabinet with stickers of Disney cartoon characters "Chip" and Dale". two family portraits, two ceramic horses, a ceramic and a bronze Buddha. two teasels, a dresser with a vanity mirror. topped by an alarm clock, a twin bed with a woven coverlet, and a dining room table.

Inside the ger, one can see a variety of food a teapot, more figurines, soft drinks. a hotplate and enamelled plates hanging from the wall. A fluorescent light fixture is suspended from the peak of the ger. A sheep grazes nea-rbY

Regzen Batsuury. a truck driver and free-lance construction worker, and his wife, Lkhamsuren Oyuntsetseg, who works full-time in the pharmacy of the local hospital, live in Ulan Bator.

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