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The Burning House Project

Website invites photographers to document their most prized possessions

The Burning House blog asks one question of its contributors: if your house were burning to the ground, what would you take with you? 

Participants send in a photograph (or illustration) of their most prized possessions arranged to their compositional liking. Following each photograph, a detailed list describes why each object is important to the artist and why they'd throw it in a duffel bag in their rush to safety. 

Documenting one's possessions provides a challenge for any photographer. When you look at an object you love, you see much more than the light reflected off its surface. You see the memories of your personal history embedded within it. You feel an affection based on what only you can see. Translating those emotions into a photograph requires an adept use of visual language. How do we render life in inanimate objects? 

The contributors to The Burning House each answer that question with their own skills. Composition and lighting are huge factors in the readability of their photos. Certain objects, like a baby's pacifier, are much more immediately evocative than more specific sentimental items, like an old, dirty baseball cap. But the placement of the objects within the frame allows them to resonate off of each other. Even without their accompanying descriptions, the images serve as visual narratives of the lives of their creators. Some artists may decry materialism, but there's no question that we put much of ourselves into the things we own. Objects become tokens of our past, cogs in comfort strategies, tools for creating our life's work. Even the more ascetic of us embed parts of themselves in a favorite shirt or a dog-eared book. 

My favorite photos in the series are the ones that are also pet portraits. The inanimate objects are arranged and captured beautifully, but there's nothing quite like the look of admiration from your pug as he gazes up into your camera. One particularly moving image features the favorite toys of a 6-year-old child. His rescue list consists of only 9 items, while most of the adult photos depict far more. The older we grow, it seems, the more we own that clings to us. Certain adult lists are particularly brief, and they tend to hold the most mystery. Most people chose to rescue their cell phones and computers, but some restricted their list to intensely personal and specific items. The omission of objects that most people take for bare necessities says as much about a person as the inclusion of any item. 

It's also interesting to see how different these lists are from what they would have been 10, 20 years ago. Many digital gadgets make it onto people's lists. Kindles, iPads, and iPhones are all deemed important enough by some to salvage. These tools have become so central to organizing lives that losing them entails losing far more than an expensive toy. Saved photos, writing, and art can all be contained within a laptop. As our lives grow increasingly digital, our work becomes easier to carry. 

The website asks its contributors to think of their lists as "an interview condensed into one question". The challenge does provide for some worthwhile introspection as you decide what comes with you and what's left to burn. Anyone can submit a photo to be featured, so feel free to share your exercise in prioritization.