Photographer Gabriele Galimberti’s project on children around the world depicted with their most prized possessions was recently published. It’s an adorable set of photos of children with odd collections of items they feel define them. The photos are collected in a volume—Toy Stories: Photos of Children From Around the World and Their Favorite Things.
Initially, I was reminded of JeungMee Yoon’s “The Pink and Blue Project” (here), where she took pictures of girls surrounded by all of the pink things they owned and boys surrounded by their blue clothes, toys, and décor. Some of what struck me was the global uniformity in the objects surrounding children. It’s a powerful statement of globalization to see that children are growing up all around the world with some of the same cultural influences: from characters, to colors, to cars and weapons, and more.
But, at a larger level, I think this project reflects one way we like to think about identity: that each of us has one of them and that it is established early on and that it (or elements of “it”) stick, such that we can recognize vestiges of our childhood identities in our adult selves. Indeed, when I’m explaining Freud to students, I often start by summarizing what I take as Freud’s central insight—“Life history matters.” It matters for who we are, who we might become, and more. But, “life history” is rarely captured in snap-shots. We think of it this way–but out identities are projects that unfold in time. Some things make larger marks than others, but identifying exactly what is important and why is often more difficult than we like to think.
The market for man cave paraphernalia is probably a small niche. But, many people I’ve talked to spend an inordinate amount of money on an odd array of trinkets and tchotchkes that help them symbolically authenticate these spaces. Most of the people I contact to ask about their man caves, man dens, or whatever they call them talk with me or write with me first about the sign outside of the room. Literally hundreds of these signs are for sale. Some can be customized with names, but most are not. And some men produce their own signs or have signs produced for them by others. Not every man cave has a sign. In fact, the ones with signs often feel a lot less authentic than those without. But, signs are a feature of a “type” of cave, to be sure.
The signs remind me of images we culturally associate with boys’ bedroom doors. The “Keep Out!” sign with a skull and cross bones. Indeed, this is where the signs are placed. They’re not in the man cave, they are a designation of the space that stands just outside. They symbolically welcome some and exclude others—similar to the “no girls allowed” signs we think of as characteristic of boys’ clubhouses (or Calvin and Hobbes’ tree house). When I started this man cave project, I wasn’t initially all that interested in what exactly was in the caves. I’m collecting photographs of some, documenting the objects and considering room setup, décor, and the placement of different kinds of objects within the rooms. But, I was and am much more interested in the ways these spaces fit into the relationships of the people in whose homes the caves reside. But, now that the project is underway, the stuff has captured my attention as well. And these signs are just one very small piece.