After a divorce and moving house for the 11th time, Barbara Iweins decided to take stock of her life — and everything in it.
Going from room to room, she spent nearly five years documenting every single item she owns, from loose Lego bricks and old key fobs to remote controls, kitchen utensils and assorted knick-knacks.
The resulting 12,795 images offer an intimate, unfiltered portrait of the Belgian photographer. Her warts-and-all approach — a vibrator and a dentist’s cast of her teeth are among the many personal items in inventory — is almost the opposite of today’s social media, where users carefully curate what they reveal to the world.
Among her most unexpected finds was the profusion of metal combs used to extract the scalp from her three children’s hair. “It’s something we lose all the time, and I’ve found I have six or seven of those things,” she said. “I was surprised by all the things I lost and bought again all the time.”
An example of the many items that can be found in Barbara Iwein’s “Catalogue”. Recognition: Barbara Iweins
The project has prompted the photographer to reflect on her own materialism – and the consumerism of society in general. She estimates that €121,046 (about $124,000) was spent on the entire contents of her home, although her inventory revealed that only 1% of the items had any sentimental value. Yet she retains what she calls a “connection” with her thousands of possessions.
“It’s a little sad,” she said. “And I totally understand that, because my friends are mostly travelers and they look at me a little bit pityingly — but having[a relationship with my stuff]puts me at ease.”
And although she is a self-confessed “neurotic collector”, the photographer does not see herself as a hamster. “I give away a lot, I don’t buy excessively — I think I’m a normal person,” she said.
“I know it’s a lot,” she added. “But I thought it would be more.”
An act of “self-preservation”
And although often banal in isolation, individual images contain the stories of her life: the salacious novel she got from her father’s library when she was 16, the hospital bracelet she wore at birth, or the anti-anxiety medication she took with her took in early 40s.
Over the years, Iweins devoted an average of 15 hours a week to the project. Bringing order to the chaos became a kind of “therapy” that helped her overcome not only her divorce but also the subsequent death of her boyfriend.
“When I started, I really thought I was exhausted from moving home and moving my stuff,” she said. “And then I realized it wasn’t about that at all. It was more of an act of self-preservation – that it was really about doing something (for the series) every day to organize my life in my mind, in a positive process.
“Now that the project is complete and I’ve determined which objects are valuable, I can start living,” she added. “Everything was there for a reason, I think.”
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