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The objects that define us

A People Nerds interview with Paula Zuccotti

Words by Carrie Neill, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

How many things have you touched today? Your phone, most likely. Your favorite coffee mug? A toothbrush? The clothes on your back? What else? If your answer is “nothing,” Paula Zuccotti suggests you think harder.

Zuccotti is the author of the book “Every Thing We Touch,” a cultural snapshot of modern life that documents every object people engaged with over a 24-hour period. “The images act as a kind of future archaeology,” Zuccotti writes. “Many of the things we know about past civilizations are from insights gathered through their objects….Will ours do the same?”

A trained ethnographer and product design consultant, Zuccotti traveled to six continents and recruited 62 people to participate in the project. Each participant was asked to keep an exhaustive list of every thing they encountered throughout their day, from train tickets to food. (Permanent objects like light fixtures and large items such as cars were excluded.) If someone said they took a shower and brought a bar of soap, Zuccotti would ask for the shampoo, the conditioner, and the razor.

“I don’t like to have a gap,” she says. “Artistically, if I didn’t know about something, I just couldn’t complete the picture.”

Zuccotti found most of the participants through her network or by reaching out via social media and explaining the project. A few were harder to track down, like the honest-to-goodness cowboy she had her heart set on including.

“I got my husband to phone stables and ranches in Arizona looking for someone," Zuccotti says, noting that her usual method of connecting online failed. “Cowboys are not really exposed online like that. They don’t have blogs. There are people who do rodeo or are sort of the tourist version of a cowboy, but I didn’t want that. I wanted a real one.”

Eventually she found one in Tucson, and went to the stables where he worked to help collect the objects and tools for his photograph. That spread is one of her favorites.

"David, 23, Tuscon" — Photo c/o Paula Zuccotti, Every Thing We Touch

dscout recently caught up with Zuccotti (and we’ve been thinking about every single thing we’ve touched since).

dscout: This was an ambitious project. How did you decide that you wanted to catalog literally every object people touched?

Paula Zuccotti: I’m an ethnographer who works in design, so I’ve spent most of my career traveling around the world looking at one specific subject at a time. For three months, I’d be totally occupied by TV remote controls or how people listen to music. Then I’d be thinking about how people consume mayonnaise, then deodorant, or banking. I would be traveling to different pockets of the world and just seeing a little portion of life; I’d interview someone and it would be exclusively about their banking services. One day I thought, “What if I looked at everything one person does in a day? What else would I learn? How can I see everything in context?” I wanted to look at life by people, instead of by topic.

A less segmented, more holistic view.

Exactly, a chance to see how everything makes sense together. There was also a bit of nostalgia for the industrial design world. I’d noticed that my clients weren’t asking product questions anymore. Everyone seemed a little afraid to even say what they wanted to design. Clients who in 2003 or 2004 were saying “We need a strategy and information on user behavior to inform the design of a TV with a remote control,” were now asking me “What’s the future of entertainment?” Or my clients in the cosmetics industry would ask “What’s the future of beauty?”

Obviously they’re doing the right thing by future proofing, but it seems like a big shift from knowing what you want to not being able to imagine everyday interactions with things. On top of that, so many products were being replaced by apps and becoming obsolete. So I asked myself: “Which ones are likely to disappear and which are likely to stay with us?"

Why focus on a single day? Were there things about people’s lives that allowed you to see more clearly?

A day seemed like it was going to be a whole x-ray, and a much more honest picture of someone’s life. If you’re cataloging everything you’re touching on a certain day, yes, you may consciously choose to wear a nicer dress, but you also have to touch your toothbrush, your towel, all the other things that people don’t really pay much attention to. That gives a much better picture of someone’s life than just a belt and a pair of glasses and a dress that they want you to see.

With social media, it feels like that’s so much of what we see today—a curated version of someone’s life. By broadening it to include literally every object someone touches, you’re mitigating that somewhat.

Whenever I approached anyone about the project, I was clear that honesty was at the heart of participating. It was more like an art research project. So, no one really saw it as a way not to be who they were.

Were people mostly open to the idea? Or was there some pushback, some incredulity? Did anyone say “You want me to do what?”

I rarely got a rejection, even though it was quite a bit difficult to do. People found it a beautiful challenge, to be mindful and conscious about everything they did for a day. It made people think about their lives. They’d say things like, "Oh my God, everything on this page is about work. There’s no fun.” Or, “I wish in five years that there will be baby products and my life will be less selfish and more about others.” Or “I can’t believe I eat so much crap. I need to eat better.” We are all like that. The information is there, but we have to pay attention.

How did you approach the photographs technically? Did you go into people’s homes?

I treated it like a traditional ethnography project. I rented out photography studios everywhere I went, and had the participants come there. It took me four hours to set up each photo, and I’d interview the person as well. They’d recorded everything they’d touched all day, and I asked them to send me a list of the objects. I asked them to send me photographs of situations and what they ate so I could recreate it. If they told me, "I ate a Big Mac," then I’d go and buy one at McDonald’s. If they had a Caesar salad, then I’d make that same meal and photograph it on the plate they used.

I was rigorous about it. I wanted to paint the real picture of someone’s life. I’ve been in so many households around the world doing ethnographic research, opening cupboards, going through bags, people’s fridges, people’s cars. When somebody says to me, "In the morning, I just had a cup of tea and then I went to work," then I will start, "Where did you have the cup of tea? Didn’t you touch the kettle? What about the spoon? I want the tea box. Did you have any sugar?"

And it’s also a kind of time capsule to frame what was happening in our lives in 2015. If you were to take the same photos in five years, there are certain things that wouldn’t be there. The computers, the phones, the tablets. They’ll have been replaced by something else. But your fork, your knife, toothbrush, towel, bowl, cup—those objects aren’t going to look odd. Those are actually the products we know will be part of the future.

That’s especially interesting from a historical and anthropological perspective, because you can’t be sure what a piece of technology is just by looking at it. In a hundred years, whatever the phone is will look completely different, and you wouldn’t know what an iPhone was unless someone explained to you, “This is what this was and what it did.” But with other objects, you can get a good sense of them from a photo. You can say "This is how this was used and here’s what it tells me about how this person lived."

Exactly. The hypothesis that I wrote when I started was, “We make sense of future civilizations by the objects we find.” It’s a different comparison, but when you want to make sense of how the Mayans lived or how they understood math or astrology, you go back to the objects to tell you. Whenever we don’t understand how something happened, how a building was built or how a civilization managed to know about something, it’s because we’re missing objects. We’re missing what they can tell us.

One of the profiles in the book that I love is the one of my mother. She was 62 at the time, living in Buenos Aires, where I’m from. Her photo has so many objects that other people no longer had. She has an alarm clock instead of a mobile phone. A landline telephone. Radios and remote controls. Her generation is probably one of the last to touch all of these things. Many of the people in the book are watching something before they go to bed, but not necessarily from a TV—it’s on a tablet or laptop. From afar, you might think a laptop means they’re working, but actually they’re just watching Netflix in bed.

"Diana, 62, Buenos Aires" - Photo c/o Paula Zuccotti, Every Thing We Touch

My mother also had CDs, because she still listens to music that way. That was one of the objects that spurred me to think about what future generations would perceive was missing in our culture, because it wasn’t in the photos. Music is such an important expression of our identities and yet nobody touches it anymore. If I’m looking at a photograph of you, I can build a picture of your identity and what you like from the dress you’re wearing, your style, your accessories. But I’m missing a big piece about what music will tell me about you. It opens so many questions about how things could be interpreted in the years to come.

You photographed 62 people for the book, and went to Tokyo, Shanghai, Madrid, Buenos Aires, Marrakesh, Melbourne, San Francisco, and Phoenix, among other cities.  Did you map out who you were going to talk to in advance?

It was really driven by curiosity at the start. I wanted to see a day in the life of a tattoo artist, so I found one in Melbourne. In China, I wanted to see a day in the life of someone who was a dragon and lion dancer for festivals, and spends the whole day inside a costume jumping up and down. I wanted to photograph a surfer, and a little eight-year-old boy was the first surfer I encountered, so he was the one in the book. I wanted it to be as varied as possible, to have people from different ages. The youngest is a little boy who was one-month old, and the eldest was a guy in China who was seventy-two.

Presumably the one-month old had help.

Ha. Yes, although the tricky thing is a one-month-old baby actually doesn’t use his hands very much. It was a case of photographing everything that the baby came into contact with. The mattress, the bedding, the blanket, the little muslin cloths, the clothes he was wearing, the mother’s T-shirt.                   

Has the project informed your commercial work, how you look at the design of products and how we interact with them?

Definitely. I’m trying to bridge the gap between the commercial and the more journalistic. I did a commercial for Skoda, the car manufacturer, that does an ethnography of Skoda drivers by taking an inventory of the objects in the trunk of their cars. And I find myself lining up objects like they are in the photographs when I’m working. When I don’t understand something, I say, "Just talk me through it, and I will just build the story with objects."

The book’s also been an opportunity to talk about ethnography and everyday lives with people that aren’t in the field. The people who’ve purchased it aren’t ethnographers, anthropologists, designers, marketers. They’re just curious about everyday life, about understanding others. I think it’s important for ethnographers to do that kind of journalistic work. So much of the work we do today is for commercial purposes, but sometimes we need to use our knowledge to raise questions and talk about wider problems. We have the skills to uncover the insights.

It’s interesting to think about the approach in a more commercial context, like what’s in our cars. But the idea is flexible enough that you can do that. It’s a lens through which to view the moment.

It is. It’s opened doors to other projects too. I just did a photoshoot for Jerusalem Design Week. The focus was on diverse communities inhabiting a city, so there were people from lots of different religions and backgrounds—Christians, Muslims, Secular and Orthodox Jews.

One of the ladies that I was photographing handed me several things at once: a praying mat and the Quran, cigarettes, and a coffee. I was building the chronology and I asked her what was first, the cigarettes, the coffee or the praying mat. She said the praying mat went first, then quickly added, “But I’m not religious.” That allowed me to ask her, “Why are you not religious?” It’s a question I normally wouldn’t have asked someone I’d just met, but it launched a discussion into the topic. She said that to be religious you have to adhere to a certain etiquette of that religion and live your life according to the expectations of that religion. ‘If I call myself a Muslim,’ she said, ‘I have to dress in a certain way and there are a lot of things that I wouldn’t be able to do. I still want to pray to the same God, but I don’t want to carry that label with me.’ There are things like that that you probably wouldn’t get from a stranger so quickly, except that you’re asking about an object, about when they use something and why.

There’s a level of honesty.

I’ve been amazed by how close you can get to somebody just by picking up a few objects and starting a conversation. These are people that I didn’t know and just by them opening boxes and handing me stuff, I find out about their past, their present, their future, what they see and what they like, what things mean to them. I know it sounds like a cliché to say that objects are storytellers, but it’s fascinating how deep you can get with somebody from that vantage point. Starting with an object, it doesn’t feel like you’re intruding into somebody’s life.

Read more about Paula Zuccotti and the book Every Thing We Touch.

Carrie Neill is a New York based writer, editor, design advocate, bookworm, travel fiend, dessert enthusiast, and a fan of People Nerds everywhere.

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