Oh Snap!: What Would You Grab If Your House Was on Fire?

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 9 2011 2:01 PM

Oh Snap!: What Would You Grab If Your House Was on Fire?

What would you take with you if your house were burning? Anyone who’s actually been in this situation knows that the hypothetical list devised on road trips dissolves when faced with actual smoke and flames. (This writer has been in that situation twice. At age 4, I remember caring most about my cats, Red and Blue. At 13, I grabbed photo albums and a few random keepsakes that happened to be within arm’s reach. Both times, firemen saved the day.)

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No matter how many times it gets asked, however, it’s still a fascinating question—one that cuts to the heart of what people value. The images above, taken from the site the Burning House, reveal a great deal about the people who submitted them. A 34-year-old designer includes his daughter, stating “she would even be enough,” but then adds his vintage eyewear collection—“if I have time.” A 19-year-old boy who describes himself as an “underachiever” would bring his father’s Navy Diver t-shirt, a “custom high school blanket given to me for being a four year athlete,” and an old Wolverine comic. A 50-year-old woman in South Africa didn’t submit a photo, but instead writes, “If my house was burning, I would take nothing. I am a hoarder, married to a minimalist, and it would take a burning house to allow me to start anew … with no inanimate objects holding me their prisoner. …”

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Many of these images were created by photographers or designers and are beautifully composed. In some cases, it’s hard not to wonder whether these artists were as impacted by how cool an object looks as by its post-fire significance—not that this detracts from their intrigue.

Foster Huntington, the creator of the site, says that his own list has evolved since May, when he posted the photo below as the site’s first entry.

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“I’ve seen so many submissions that it’s forced me to re-evaluate,” he explained over the phone. Jeans, for example, no longer make the cut. (He’s planning to photograph his revised submission and post it later in the month.)

The 23-year-old designer now has plenty of time to dedicate to thinking about this question, now that what started as a casual idea has become a full-time project. A deal with !t Books, forged soon after the site’s launch, has enabled him to ditch his day job in Manhattan. He’s currently traveling across the country, photographing people’s possessions.

Since Huntington started the site just three months ago, more than 1,000 people have submitted entries. In one case, a woman was preparing her post, Huntington says, when her apartment building actually caught on fire. “There she’d spent 45 minutes grabbing stuff to photograph … but then they just took the dog and the keys,” he explains. “I thought that was pretty wild.” (In the end, her apartment did not burn down.)

One of the most striking entries comes from 52-year-old anthropologist Sandra Belanger. It consists simply of her “African Gray Parrot and best friend, Horus” and “Tektite from Gobi desert.” In a note, Belanger explains, “My house burned to the ground in 1977, lost everything. I learned that material possessions are unimportant … Word to all the folks with big piles of stuff: You have way less time than you think."

Heather Murphy is a former Slate photo editor and the creator of Behold, the Photo Blog. Follow her on Twitter.