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Material World: A Global Family Portrait
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Material World: A Global Family Portrait

4.53  ·  Rating details ·  1,315 Ratings  ·  177 Reviews
In an unprecedented effort, sixteen of the world’s foremost photographers traveled to thirty nations around the globe to live for a week with families that were statistically average for that nation. At the end of each visit, photographer and family collaborated on a remarkable portrait of the family members outside their home, surrounded by all of their possessions—a few ...more
Hardcover, 256 pages
Published October 11th 1994 by Counterpoint
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Nov 07, 2015 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: time-traveling with a book, reflection on what one owns
A travel back in time (circa 1993), yet also showing how some things have stayed unchanged. Here we visit families in 30 nations bring their house things outside the home (though some can't be included, and are listed towards the end of the book). One can remember that some things have improved since, yet some things are worse (I'm here thinking about the family in Iraq - how are they doing now?). At the book's time South Africa is still organising post-Apartheid, the recent fall of Communism me ...more
Although this book is a bit dated (from 1994), it singlehandledly explained so many concepts to my kids that it's value can't be underestimated.

There are a number of countries (30?) portrayed in this book. Each country features an average income family, many photographs of the family, explanations about their daily life, and tidbits about their income, life, and dreams.

It is a wonderful resource, and really taught all of us (me included) to appreciate what we have, to appreciate different cultur
Jul 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
Okay, yes, published in 1994, Material World is a bit dated. You can see it in the geopolitical situations referenced, the brands visible, and -- at least for the more Western countries -- the clothes and hairstyles that clearly signal that zoinks, this is the '90s!

But that's missing the point of this amazing book, which is to show *relative* material wealth among statistically average families around the world in a very visual and tangible way. And the gap between, say, first- and third-world
Aug 18, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: guatemala
Amazing book that uses beautiful photographs, meaningful statistics (how many TVs and bikes do they own instead of GDP), and minimal text to illustrate an average home and lifestyle of families from around the globe. (I will say that the uber-religious Texas family is not what I think of as the "average" American family, but I guess you have to pick someone.)

An important book to linger over and look back on when we need reminders about how blessed our lives are--and how much excess we hold in o
Feb 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This was a really neat book. I first heard about it in my World History class. We were talking about the present day and my teacher pulled up a website that had a bunch of pictures from this book. It's was really shocking to see how much people eat in a week and how little some people spend.

I used this book and A Hungry Planet this past summer at my church camp were I was a consular. We all looked at some of the pictures that I had pulled out and we talked about how we could help people who didn
Nov 04, 2009 rated it it was amazing
If you only flipped through this book and looked at the pictures you are missing everything. Anyone who gave this book less than a 4 star rating looked at the stuff and missed the content.
This book and "Women in the Material World" are amazing because they explore our values and viewpoint through interviews about how a person looks at the world and what they physically have.
Read these books and please DON'T flip through them.
May 03, 2010 rated it really liked it
Really a fantastic to way to give you perspective. I love that the author states the purpose as being to give the reader an idea of the average life of the average Joe in other countries. It's amazing to see the disparity between the different middle-classes and be able to peek in the life of those who have outhouses, or never have enough to eat dinner (Haiti), or who live a primitive but very contented existence. Wish they would do another one... Or even an update on the families involved.
Feb 21, 2011 rated it liked it
I enjoyed this look at families and the possessions they value, across 31 countries. What the photographer did was contact statistically average families from 30+ countries, photograph the contents of their house for 'The Big Picture' and then follow them around for a few days, to get a better picture of their daily lives. Even though only a few pages were dedicated to each family, you did feel like you got a taste of their lives. It also was impossible to be completely detached - in one family, ...more
Sep 30, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: everyone!
I just can't get over this book! I've been meaning to get to it and in the time between when I checked it out and when I read it, my kids and husband have been leafing through the pages. I finally picked it up yesterday and in my spare time the last two days I read it all (much of the book is photographs).

It was wonderful, yet heart-wrenching to enter the homes and see the lives of people who struggle every day just to eat. It was interesting to learn what their most treasured items were. This b
Apr 21, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2011
An incredible book! I only wish there were a more recent edition; this one was published in 1995.


A fascinating look at the material possessions of families throughout the world. These people have been determined "average" for their countries and have agreed to have photographers move the contents of their houses outside in order to create visible representations of their relative standards of living. The dirt house and few possessions of Mali residents contrast with the 4 cars,
Mar 07, 2012 rated it really liked it
This book is almost twenty years old, but I would expect the contrasts it illustrates to be just as stark today. (I'd actually love -- knowing that this is unrealistic -- to see the same project done today; it would be interesting to see where the greatest/fewest changes are.) The point is not exactly what each family has, but more how big the difference is between, say, the standard of living / statistical average of the family in Japan compared to the family in Mali compared to the family in I ...more
May 11, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Gorgeous, poignant photographs show financially "average" families from around the globe posing in front of their dwellings with all their material possessions. The text and additional photos supply details ranging from household income, number of hours worked per week, percentage of income used for food, typical meals, and most-treasured or most-coveted items, to comparisons of various countries' televisions and toilets.

This book has haunted me since my first encounter with it years ago. Even
Sep 20, 2014 rated it really liked it
A blogger I followed had this on her book list and I immediately knew I wanted to read this book. I had already seen the project of a week a groceries around the world, ( and loved it. I wanted to have a chance seeing possession around the world. Luckily our local grocery store had donated this to the library a few years back, so I was able to borrow it right away. It was fascinating! I loved the small fact box about each family. Knowing how big their hom ...more
Jul 20, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: politics-history
Editor Peter Menzel explains the project best in the foreword: "Madonna, the ultimate Material Girl, came out with her Sex book... The world needed a reality check."

Indeed, the book is from 1994 and the snapshots capture 30 families and their countries in history. That it is now out-of-date is not a drawback; at worst, it is absolutely harrowing. In 1994, the Iraqi family wishes for the embargo to end. The Bosnian family wants the fighting to end. The Haitian family wants the island-wide poverty
Nov 18, 2008 rated it it was amazing
One of my all-time favorite books: big beautiful photographs of families from all over the world, posed in front of their homes, with all of their worldly possessions on display. Families participated in Vietnam, India, China, Russia, Tibet, Japan, Finland, Cuba, Brazil... and Texas, among other places.
If you're ever feeling sorry for yourself, you slobby American, just thumb through this book for about 10 seconds.

I love the generally optimistic view of humanity in these photos: laughing famili
Feb 21, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
One of the most absorbing nonfiction books I have ever read. One median family from 31 countries was chosen to remove all the contents of its home and display those contents in front of the home. Surprisingly, USA was not the home with the most contents. Saudia Arabia was, with Iceland second, money wise. Saudia Arabia's family was probably not very common since median is the middle between High and Low. A Saudi low is like a 3rd world home, but a Saudi High would be so rich that a median would ...more
Elaine Meszaros
Dec 03, 2014 rated it it was amazing
These photo essays are short pictorials of an average family in various countries around the world. Menzel found families willing to bring the entire contents of their houses out so he could photograph them. The images are fascinating and startling. Vignettes, like TVs around the world, keep the book from seeming too bleak. Included on the 3-4 pages on each family are stats. on the average income, life expectancy, literacy rate and birth rate for each country. Personal interviews are also includ ...more
Julie Schnatterly
Mar 20, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This is one of my favorite books of all time! I pick it up whenever I start feeling ungrateful or my heart and focus in the world is on the wrong things. It puts life into perspective. The book is tremendously visual - it's a photo journal. It shows families from all over the world and the entirety of the material possessions in front of their homes. Fantastic.
Feb 03, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This book is a great choice for demonstrating distribution of wealth, different cultural values, and just appreciation of different styles of life around the world. A family is photographed outside their home, be it a McMansion or a reed hut, with all their possessions in the yard in front of them. Great for grades 3-8 and up for learning about different cultures.
Lisa Vegan
May 13, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: everybody
It misses out on 5 stars from me because no variation within countries is shown, and that's a flaw I really noticed, but it's otherwise a wonderful book that gives quite a bit of information about the economic status of the world's citizens country by country.
May 15, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I loved this more than I thought I would. In addition to the wonderful photography, the information about each family and country was so well written. I didn't think I would read them all, but I did. I wish it wasn't so dated, I would love to see an updated version.
Apr 25, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: adult, nonfic, photo-book
We've had a copy of this on our the shelf at my childhood home since... yeah, about 1994. It really has played a part in shaping how I see the world.

Amazing, groundbreaking work.
Jul 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
Great classroom resource.
Compares average families in 30 countries in terms of what they have in their homes. Lots of small bits of interesting text and hundreds of photos.
Published circa 1995.
Mar 29, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Borrowing from Amazon:
In honor of the United Nations-sponsored International Year of the Family in 1994, award-winning photojournalist Peter Menzel brought together 16 of the world's leading photographers to create a visual portrait of life in 30 nations. Material World tackles its wide subject by zooming in, allowing one household to represent an entire nation. Photographers spent one week living with a "statistically average" family in each country, learning about their work, their a
This is a pretty well done photographic journal of average families around the world, along with their material possessions. It's mostly a picture book, with large, beautiful photographs of one family per country. The main photo is of the family with nearly all its possessions, taken outside. Then there are several pictures of the family as they go through their day, cooking, working, shopping, even bathing. There are some statistics to accompany each country, and each family, to give a sense fo ...more
Feb 17, 2008 rated it it was amazing
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Mar 18, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
I love this book, it's been a favorite for many years. It is dated however it wonderful in creating discussions and to see differences and similarities. I really like how the book flows with each country and with what is valued and from the families.

Something very interesting is the section about toilets around the world. It's always interesting to see how people reaction to what they'd feel comfortable with and what would make them the least amount of comfort.

If you haven't checked out this b
Oct 13, 2008 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: general pop
Recommended to Amanda by: Jenna
This book was informative but not sure how old that information is. I was referred to it because in one photograph is the biggest couch ever made, or constructed or together. When someone asked me what it was I said "this photographer went to all these different countries and took photographs of people outside of their houses, and all of their stuff is outside." It's really telling. The format was good and different from any recent reads. Lots of photos with stats and blurs and photographer refl ...more
Oct 06, 2009 rated it really liked it
This book is fascinating. It is collaborative work of 16 photographers who spent a week in 30 different countries with a "statistically average" family (number of family members, wages, size of home, etc). The man who put it all together, Peter Menzel, has his work regularly published in National Geographic, Time, etc. There are enough words, but the pictures tell so much more. The last photo for every family is of them outside their home surrounded by all their possessions from inside arranged ...more
Sep 08, 2012 rated it really liked it
Wow. I finished reading this book feeling so grateful for the material things I am able to have in my life that I take for granted (washer/dryer, stove, etc) and it was a great reminder that so many people make do on so much less. It makes me feel a bit ridiculous to realize all of the frivolous things I own. It was also interesting to see the extended families and community/socially rich lives many of the families had and how that compares to my life. This was overall another super interesting ...more
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