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Over 1000 photographs of families from all over the world, taken over four years. Most of the pictures are in color, some are in black and white. Most of the photographs take up a full page or more, but some pages have from two to six images. Each photograph is accompanied with a little map-icon to show which part of the world it was taken in -- North or South America, Africa, Western or Eastern Europe, the Middle East or the Far East. And each picture comes with a short and cheerful piece of text, telling us a little about some of the people depicted.
But the most striking feature of the photographs is strangely enough hard to identify at first: the white background. Ommer hangs a white screen behind the family, and until once looks carefully, it seems that all signs of the geographical context has been eliminated. The only clues are provided by the clothing, the jewelry, the physical look of the people, and the ground they stand on.
He drove nearly 160,000 miles in 130 countries, and he met thousands of people. He surely made some friends. It must have been a wonderful and grueling experience for Uwe Ommer to undertake this project. But what is the point of this book, and once the point has been made, what is the point of looking through all the pictures?
There are two obvious answers to the former question, and they complement each other. First, the images show how different people are: some are thin, some are fat, some are rich, some are poor, and they wear all sorts of clothing. We can see many cultural differences in the different families. But second, and more fundamentally, the pictures suggest how similar families across the world are. The differences, the pictures seem to say, are just superficial, and all families are united by love. Blocking out the local background makes us focus on the people, and prevents us from using the surroundings to identify the part of the world in which the picture was taken, and so makes us pay more attention to the group of individuals.
I suppose that this idea is a useful one, but it is so banal that we certainly don't need it driven home over one thousand times. It's a Hallmark/Disney multicultural feel-good message and to the extent it is trapped within this view, 1000 Families seems trite and simplistic. But the book redeems itself through its subjects, because it is so interesting to look at the individual faces, family resemblances, how people stand in relation to each other, and what they are wearing. Indeed, it is easy to imagine that the process of setting up the white background screen helps the family to rise to the occasion and Ommer capture something significant about them.
The most interesting pictures in the book are the few wide-angled ones that show the whole of the white screen in context, so that the viewer can see the surroundings as well as the family in front of the screen. This exposes the whole photographic process, and creates a faintly humorous scene. For example, a smiling husband and wife with their two sons stand in front of the screen: he and his sons are wearing baseball caps, sports shoes, and modern clothing, while his wife wears the more traditional garb of Islamic women. They are in Petra, Jordan, and behind the screen is a temple carved out the solid rock of a sheer cliff-face. The juxtaposition of ancient and modern is poignant.
The book could be more interesting without all the white screens, but it is still fun to look at. I'd recommend browsing through it in a bookstore or taking a look at an appropriate website before you decide to buy the whole thing.
See the publisher's web page for this book.
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