A wide-angle view of families of the world

Peter Menzel discusses his new book that depicts 30 ordinary families from around the globe along with all their possessions

MATERIAL WORLD: A GLOBAL FAMILY PORTRAIT. By Peter Menzel; Sierra Club Books 255 pp., $30

ELEVEN book publishers said no to Peter Menzel's photographs of 30 families from around the world. But the man is a bulldog, tenacious and willing to walk a tightrope between constant rejection and the power of an idea. Add possible financial ruin, too.

``I'm $200,000 in debt,'' Mr. Menzel says calmly, ``but I think I'll be OK eventually.''

His book is now a reality, just published last month after two years of work. The title is ``Material World: A Global Family Portrait.'' After the 11 publishers turned it down, Menzel says, Sierra Club Books accepted it. And with an accompanying interactive CD-ROM of the book (with 1,000 photos), and TV specials based on the book, Menzel is breathing a little easier.

``I think publishers were ... afraid it would be some kind of anticonsumer campaign,'' says Menzel, an award-winning photographer with 23 years of credits in such publications as Life Magazine, National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and the New York Times Magazine.

The heart of the book is a series of fascinating wide-angle photos taken of each of the families in front of their homes, surrounded by all their worldly possessions. Although the beautifully designed book presents data on the families and their countries as well as other photos from daily life, it is the big family photos that have captured media attention around the world.

Magazines in Japan, Spain, Italy, and Germany have already published multipage excerpts from the book, and a photographic exhibit has traveled through France.

``Europeans seem to appreciate the book because they are cognizant of the fact that they have to know their own place in the world and like to get in sync with reality,'' Menzel says, ``We're still a little isolated here in the US.''

In the book, families from Mali to Vietnam, from Brazil to Mongolia, from Bosnia to Kuwait, look into the camera, their friendly faces and everyday locations becoming a 20th-century visual document.

``Possessions can be a blessing,'' Menzel says, ``but also a burden if you have too much. This book asks people to examine their lifestyles and consider the differences between West-ern consumption and the simplicity of other cultures.''

The idea for the book came to Menzel when he was listening to a National Public Radio story on the marketing of Madonna's book, ``Sex.'' Upset that the pop singer's view of the world was narrow and exploitative, Menzel quickly knew he would do a book photographing the statistically average families from around the world.

He launched the project with his own money, first finding an agreeable family in Japan, the Ukita family. He moved in for a week of photographing and data-gathering. ``We asked each family a list of 65 questions so we had a database to work from,'' Menzel says, ``and we used their most interesting answers in the book.''

Each family was paid to be involved in the project, either with cash or compensation for time missed at work, along with payment for the cost to the family of meals for the photographer.

For the Ukita family, nine hired workmen carried all their possessions outside and arranged them in the parking area in front of their house. The photo is truly a unique document, the family seated in the foreground, with a mountain of consumer goods around them.

In Bhutan, Menzel lived with the Namgay family in a remote mountain village. TV, airplanes, and Americans were unknown to this farming family of 12 with an annual income of $174.

``I was from another planet,'' Menzel says. The portrait of the family with simple possessions does not reveal their health problems and poverty.

``It was one of the worst situations for flies I have ever been in,'' Menzel says.

After the Namgay family portrait had been taken in the afternoon of an overcast day, the households of the 11 other village families approached Menzel. ``They told me that they were taking their things out of their houses, and when could I take their photos,'' says Menzel. ``They were very warm and friendly people.''

As Menzel hired more photographers for the book, each one became close to the families. ``It became an emotional event,'' Menzel says, ``with tears shed when the photographers left.''

Using royalties from the photos, all the photographers on the project have created an education fund for the children of the families.

``I have children,'' Menzel explains, ``and I want them to have children and live in a wonderful sustainable world, but it's not going to come without a lot of work and sacrifice. ``If people want a lot of material goods like developed countries, then the work week can be long and stressful.''

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