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The Consumer Project

Have you ever tried to get out of Ikea? It’s easy. Just follow the arrows. The arrows will guide you to the exit, but you’ll have to pass 12,000 products you never thought you needed. Until now.

Take a walk in a city, watch the news on television, listen to the radio and you will be exposed to nearly 4,000 ads a day. Walk into Costco, Target or TJ Maxx and you will be awarded with prices so low you can’t not buy. Who knows what might come in handy someday?

Put on your smart casualwear and go into Saks or Barney’s and you will be met by a greeter, soft jazz and spritzes of perfume. All designed to make you feel you have arrived - in every sense of the word.

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I take pictures of stuff: shoes, bags, food, furniture, floor displays, anything. I shoot in New York City in luxury shops on Madison Avenue and dollar stores in Queens. I use an unassuming camera and I shoot with flash. No one stops me.

There was a time when guards would haul me out of a store if I tried to take pictures. But today, I say I am looking for ideas for presents and salespeople, if any are around, let me arrange my shot. I am an accomplice.

This project is about consumerism, a term so confusing it means both support for the consumer and excessive consumption by the consumer. I mean it in the sense of the ubiquity of products and advertising designed to make us feel that the more we have, the happier and more successful we will be, despite studies to the contrary. But how can scholarly studies compete with the tsunami of advertising and goods the global marketing empires accost us with daily.

My goal is not to be judgmental. To think money can’t buy things we love is ridiculous. I love my Ralph Lauren couch and have for twenty odd years. On the contrary, I am impressed by the democracy of merchandising. Products begin in the minds of talented designers and artisans and sell for prices few can afford. If unsold, they descend to the aisles of TJ Max, Marshall’s and Century 21. Meanwhile, these items are copied and mass-produced in China and Vietnam and sold at Ikea and Target where the rest of us can buy them.

On the other hand, merchandising has changed from being seasonal to weekly. New items arrive constantly. Family and friends' sales, once-a-year-sales, clearance sales occur regularly. Storage units are a billion-dollar industry and the Container Store is thriving.

Certainly, we need a healthy economy with low unemployment, but do we need to spend more money on shoes, jewelry and watches than, in fact, we do on higher education? Do women need to wear a new outfit to work every day or a different party dress to every event? And do the top one percent need to buy $3,000 shoes that even Christian Louboutin says aren’t made for walking?

My goal in this project is to show photographs of products not as they are seen in magazines, billboards or a well-lit shelf in Saks, but rather as I see them: too glitzy, too many, too silly or too expensive. After viewing multiple images, I hope viewers see the absurdity of it all. I hope they recognize how excessive consumerism is a diversion from what matters. While we are working longer hours, struggling over debt, focusing on the latest trends, we are taking time and energy away from self, family, community, the environment. Worse, we are left unhappy, stressed and cluttered.

I see my project as a selfie, not of myself, but of my culture. We have no control over the snapshot of time in which we live. I am an American with an American Express card and it is indeed a luxury to complain about consumerism. Still, if we can get out of the shopping malls and off Amazon, we can get beyond the instant gratification of yet another purchase and spend our time being more productive, generous and fulfilled.

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