A photographer cataloged all 12,795 items in her house. This is what she found

CNN  — 

After going through a divorce and moving home for the 11th time, Barbara Iweins decided to take stock of her life – and everything in it.

Going from room to room, she spent almost five years documenting every single object she owns, from loose Lego bricks and old keychains to remote controls, kitchen utensils and miscellaneous 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 mold of her teeth are among the many personal items in the inventory – is almost the antithesis of today’s social media, whereby users closely curate what they reveal to the world.

“Everybody’s trying to protect themselves by showing an idealized version of their lives,” Iweins said over the phone from France, where some of the images are currently on display at the Rencontres d’Arles photo festival. “So, I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to show it all; it has to be real.’”

While photographing her possessions, Iweins classified them by color, material and the frequency with which they were used (from once a day to never). Her spreadsheet provided a deluge of insights, both surprising and amusing. Blue is the dominant color in her house, accounting for 16% of all items, while 22% of her clothes are black. Of the items in her bathroom, 43% are made from plastic. Some 90% of the cables in her house are never used, and 19% of her books remain unread.

Among her most unexpected finds was the abundance of metal combs used to extract headlice from her three kids’ hair. “It’s something we’re losing all the time, and I found I had six or seven of these things,” she said. “I was surprised by all the things that I was losing all the time and re-buying.”

An example of the many items that feature in Barbara Iweins' "Katalog."

The project has prompted the photographer to reflect on her own materialism – and society’s consumerism at large. She estimates that 121,046 euros (around $124,000) was spent on her home’s entire contents, though her inventory revealed that just 1% of objects held sentimental value. Yet she retains what she calls a “connection” with her thousands of possessions.

“It’s a little bit sad,” she said. “And I totally understand, because my friends are mostly travelers and they really look at me with a bit of pity – but having (a relationship with my things) reassures me.”

And although a self-professed “neurotic collector,” the photographer doesn’t consider herself a hoarder. “I give a lot away, I don’t buy excessively – I think I’m a regular person,” she said.

“I know it’s a lot,” she added. “But I thought it would be more.”

An act of ‘self-preservation’

In a new book accompanying the series, titled “Katalog,” the photographer orders her possessions by type, with entire pages dedicated to writing implements, cleaning products and toy animals. When viewed en masse, the images take on a hypnotic, graphic quality, revealing seemingly endless variations of everyday forms.

And while often mundane in isolation, individual pictures contain the stories of her life: The salacious novel she took from her father’s library aged 16, the hospital bracelet she wore when giving birth or the anti-anxiety medication she began taking in her early 40s.

Over the years, Iweins dedicated 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 the subsequent death of her boyfriend.

“When I started, I really believed that I was exhausted of moving home and moving my stuff around,” she said. “And then I realized that it wasn’t about that at all. It was more like an act of self-preservation – that doing something (for the series) every day was really about organizing my life in my head. It was a positive process.

“Now that the project is done, and I have identified which objects are valuable, I can start living,” she added. “Everything was there for a reason, I guess.”

Katalog” is on show at the Rencontres d’Arles photo festival until Sep. 25, 2022. An accompanying book, published by Delpire & Co, is available now.