Before you do anything else, go and look at Camilla Catrambone’s haunting page called Portraits of My Family.
Catrambone arranged and photographed objects that represented memories she had with prior generations of her relatives. They are mementos only to her, but to the rest of us, perhaps, flashes of insights that echo with recognition.
Below I reproduce the first three of her pictures, and share the personal journey that I went through in looking at them. She has 7 in total at her website and you should go see them all, because they are awesome, and because she deserves the clicks.
I was underwhelmed on first seeing this. I know that there has been a great deal of work from consumer researchers who have talked about the ways that possessions can become “sacred” to us (in the anthropological not the religious sense), and can transmute from being mere things into “inalienable wealth”, and there is certainly a broad and very popular belief that what we own says a lot about us.
While that made sense to me, I guess I’ve also always felt skeptical that our possessions really do say so very much. When playing the old game of “if you could save only one thing from your burning house”, I never knew what to bring. I answered either my box of old photographs, or my computer. To be honest I never look at the photos, and my computer is there because it would be expensive to replace. It’s not that I’m unsentimental in general (especially not as I age), but I’ve always thought that things were… pretty much just things.
And what was there to say about the stuff here anyway? A watch to tell time with, a string of normal looking pearls, an old fashioned wallet and photo, some standard issue fancy silver spoons. It was just… grandma stuff.
This one took me aback. It is artfully poised and balanced, and yet functional yet recreational yet decorative. I have instant visions of sitting in a bright sitting room, a formal feel with well-placed and constructed chairs that forbid slouching, and being offered a cookie off that tray. I can see a lady pouring a cup of tea out of the pot, and asking after my mother. It feels like the house of my grandma in rural England, or my neighbour across the street in Toronto, or some of my friends in Manchester…
We have china of our own at home now too. It’s seemingly an inevitability of getting married. One minute you are talking about proclaiming the finer points of your love life unto the world, and the next you find yourself in a department store, thinking for the first time in your life very seriously about which shapes of porcelain and ink you find most pleasing. The first time you use your china you feel pretty grown up. The second time, too. So maybe these items looked less alien to me, and more like a polished version of something I could see the edges of in myself.
This one spoke to me yet more. I’m just old enough to remember those rotary dial phones. I’ve used staplers like that. My parents used to have an old briefcase that looked like that, an the modern versions aren’t really so different. The scissors, the hole punch, the paperclips, the used tickets, all speak of the desk at home where you get little things done. It is a desk with a drawer underneath it in which you deposit tickets for things that were too significant to throw out, but too far past their use to be worth putting anywhere else.
This feels like a slice of life that I could relate to dipping into – the moment of reaching for a telephone or scissors or stapler to finally tidy some odd or end away. The satisfaction of crossing a line off your ‘to do’ list.
#4: (go to her site to see the rest) is of a pinafore and chopping board with salami, bread and cheese – a rough working lunch to be sent out for the day on. A picnic packed for a blue collar job.
#5: Tools made of old metal from a blacksmiths forge. The tools themselves are mostly familiar – hammers, files, pincers, awls, scrapers, files, drill bits, and on. But the shapes aren’t the precision molded computer designed ones of today. The hammer head looks like an otter with a squashed nose, and there is something mysterious that looks like a horn or a saber-tooth tigers incisor. It is from a workbench that planed solid wood, long before Ikea chipboard even thought of being an option.
#6 & 7: A mother’s implements of mass cooking. Boards and pots and spoons and onions, calling to mind steam bubbling from under lids, kids being told to lay the table, and dishes full of food.
Looking back I noticed something I had missed the first time. Photos 1 and 2 were of possessions from the same person, Grandma Ilva (I’m pretty slow some days, and this intepretivist turn of mind is not what I normally do as a market researcher). They weren’t coding the lives of different people, they were different slices of the same life. And that made sense the more I thought about it. I’d originally written #1 off as generic grandma stuff, but it was streaked through with personality. There’s the needle, thread, thimble and tape measure of someone who made clothes – probably her own and her families; wrapping her tape measure around herself and her kids, watching them start to roll their eyes and complain about it as they got older. There’s the photo of a pretty woman – presumably Ilva herself, looking dapper and stylish – if she made those clothes herself she was quite a seamstress. You can see why a comb and earrings would find their way into this collage, as she clearly invested time into the artistry of self presentation. That resonates with the well-coordinated crockery from photo 2. There’s even what looks to be a pulp romance novel, that speaks to a softer, more personal, and human side – someone who wasn’t afraid of enjoying the emotions of people coming together.
You start to imagine a person you might know. Artistic and a little proud, maybe even (to project freely) a little fiery. Yet someone frugal and practical enough to make clothes, probably from a poor immigrant family who had to make do. Someone who would giggle with her girlfriends as a young woman about the way the teacher looked, and who presumed as an adult that someone who didn’t know how to dress simply wasn’t trying.
Maybe my characterizations are way off. Probably they are. But what I was definitely wrong about was my first impulse in thinking that our possessions don’t speak to our lives. They may not be particularly accurate or articulate summaries, but nevertheless hold a residue of human experience.
Belk, R. W., Wallendorf, M., & Sherry, J. J. F. (1989). The sacred and the profane in consumer behavior: Theodicy on the Odyssey. Journal of Consumer Research, 16(1), 1-38.
Bradford, T. (2009). Intergenerationally Gifted Asset Dispositions. Journal of Consumer Research, 36(1), 93-111.
Curasi, C. F., Price, L. L., & Arnould, E. J. (2004). How Individuals’ Cherished Possessions Become Families’ Inalienable Wealth. Journal of Consumer Research, 31(3), 609-622.