I’m longtime fans of photojournalist Peter Menzel, whose visual anthropology captures the striking span of humanity’s socioeconomic and cultural spectrum. His Hungry Planet portrayed the world’s sustenance with remarkable graphic eloquence, and today I’m turning to some of his earliest work, doing the same for the world’s shelter: Material World: A Global Family Portrait — a beautiful 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.
Though the book is now 17 years old, it is still relevant and it’s still a curious meta-evidence for the material world we live in. Some of these families may have more today, but the disparity is probably the same in most cases. It still circulates. And for another 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.
Mali: The Natomo Family
It’s common for men in this West African country to have two wives, as 39-year-old Soumana Natomo does, which increases their progeny and in turn their chance to be supported in old age. Soumana now has eight children, and his wives, Pama Kondo (28) and Fatouma Niangani Toure (26), will likely have more. How many of these children will survive, though, is uncertain: Mali’s infant mortality rate ranks among the ten highest in the world. Possessions not included in this photo: Another mortar and pestle for pounding grain, two wooden mattress platforms, 30 mango trees, and old radio batteries that the children use as toys.