These days, thanks to Google Street View (and even drones), we can vicariously visit different homes around the world, if we want to. But, we can’t see inside, thankfully(?). And yet, if people are willing to let us into their homes, to show us how they live and what they have, then doesn’t it bring out the curiosity in all of us?
We’ve experienced this (for good, and bad) on mainstream TV for many years already, and the number of shows and series, and originality of angles and content seems far from slowing down.
We as researchers also often experience this at a very first-hand level by conducting in-home ethnography studies, in which we ‘live’ for hours or days as flies on the wall in the homes of consumers who will hopefully neither swat nor indulge us, and who usually welcome us. We also regularly set pre-tasks / homework for respondents coming to groups and interviews, such as taking photos of their bathroom cabinets, kitchen cupboards, or even their 3 favourite things. But, whether homework or a week long dive, these studies are always true revelations, because isn’t it what we have in our homes that really defines us as individuals, and as consumers?
It’s therefore of little surprise that we enjoyed learning about the work of photographer Huang Qingjun in China. With “Family Stuff”, instead of going into people’s homes to document what they have in-situ, Huang asks willing participants to take everything they own, and put it outside their house. “In my photos, I invite you into my subjects’ private space” he tells a BBC feature.
The results are fascinating scenes of deconstructed lives, reconstructed identities, and all in the true context of where these people live – not just the type of home, but the immediate vicinity and neighbourhood too. He doesn’t recruit just anyone either – “I like to find subjects that are different, people who tell us something about the society we live in”.
A variation on this project, “Online Shopping Family Stuff” involves Huang photographing specifically those purchases that people have made via the Internet “because the Internet has become such an integral part of our lives… but how does it change people’s lives [especially in remote areas]“ – which gets you wondering which items might have long been coveted from abroad, that have kickstarted a whole new realm of hobbyist possibilities, whilst for other items an online purchase might just have been cheaper, more practical, or even a lifeline.
Huang was able to discuss and learn first-hand which possessions – if indeed any – were most important to the individuals. For our part, we are left to reflect and draw our own conclusions about this very diverse set of people. about how they live, their values and aspirations, the choices they’ve made and why, and so much more. But what is almost certain, is that what we see represents who they really are.