In the late 1940’s, The Ladies’ Home Journal, asked John G. Morris, the respected journalist and photo-editor to help oversee the long-running How America Lives series of photoessays the magazine had been running since 1940 and take it to the next level with his photojournalist connections. In addition to that project, Morris had a different idea: a photo-essay depicting how the families across the world were coping in the post-war landscape of change and tumult.
Morris would put together a series, ”People Are People the World Over,” following twelve families in twelve different countries around the world, a work that would be serialized in the Journal for a year in 1947-48.
For the essay, Morris engaged George Rodger and David Seymour, two of the founders of Magnum Agency to shoot five of the countries (Rodger in Egypt, Pakistan, Equitorial Africa; Seymour in France and Germany). As freelance stringers, he engaged Larry Burrows (England), Marie Hansen (Italy), Phil Schultz (Mexico), and Horace Bristol (Japan and China). Robert Capa covered American and Czechoslovakian farming families. Many of them were weary war photographers, who wanted to cover human-interest stories different from what they had been covering for a decade.
Morris described his subjects in the opening essay:
Here are 88 of the 2,000,000,000 people who inhabit the planet Earth. They are 12 families who represent 12 countries, 3 races and 5religious faiths. They speak 11 languages.
- The Okamotos, of Oshika, Japan — whose twelve annual taxes include a cow tax and a supplementary cow tax.
- The Ho Fu-yuans, of Kia-ting, China, who would not permit their little girl to be photographed lest evil spirits cause her death.
- The Mohamed Usmans, of Patni, Pakistan — a couple who had not met before their wedding, but whose marriage has lasted thirteen years.
- The el Gamels, of Manayel Shebein el Kanater, Egypt — whose donkeys are descended from those in the Bible.
- The Zamba Alumas, of Lujulu, Equatorial Africa — where every girl’s first task of the day is to gather fresh leaves for her skirt.
- The Baloghs, of Furolac, Czechoslovakia — where weddings last three days and wolf meat is considered a delicacy.
- The Guercinis, of Greve, near Florence, in Italy — whose spotlessly clean house is painted yellow because the neighbors’ are red.
- The Stieglitzes, of Wollau, Germany — who fell in love at a village dance and were married in the year Hitler came to power.
- The Redouins, of Fosses, France — who sent messages by carrier pigeons to England during the late German occupation.-
- The Hiatts, of Hook Norton, England — who like to read Western stories and whose favorite pub is The Gate Hangs High.
- The Pratts, of Glidden, Iowa, U. S. A. — whose nine-year-old girl would rather ride a pony bareback than do anything else in the world.
- The Gonzalezes, of Moravatio, Mexico — where cockfights are legal and it is the custom to “steal” a bride from her parents.
The support infrastructure for the photo-essay was already provided by How America Lives. Similarly to that essay, each photographer spent for extensive periods of time with the families they were profiling and was given lengthy questionnaires to ask the families. Each photographer was asked to work as a sociologist, asking everything from how much money families spent on soap to what careers fathers wanted for their children. Capa’s work in Iowa also set the baseline for the content, as well as choosing families whose lives were lived around farming to keep the scope comparable.
Morris’s secretary, Jinx Witherspoon (future wife of George Rodger) and Rita Vandivert (wife of Magnum co-founder William Vandivert), helped coordinate the whole enterprise. As there were very specific requirements to make the thematically organized installments work – and the $15,000 budget was limited – many aspects were inevitably staged. For instance, Rita would suggest which staple foods each family should be farming in order to “give variety to the story” and instruct photographers to “cable before shooting” if they planned to deviate from the instructions.
Some instructions requested the photographers to juxtapose the family with their unique landscape in the background. Thus in “How the World Gets Around” (below), the photos included a row of parasols in Japan, the arid Mexico, the rubble of post-war Germany. For “How the World Eats,” families eating were asked to be shot from above to capturing the entire family with their traditional garb and seating arrangements.
Morris preferred photos which did not show the subjects making eye contact with the viewer, which limited the available set of photos. Using Capa’s Iowa work as a template was another restriction; the instructions often asked photographers to find visual equivalents to the American family’s routine which sometimes created awkwardly staged compositions. In “This is the World at Home” (below) the English and American families were in their living rooms, while in the Mexican family was unnaturally squeezed into their small adobe house. In China, Pakistan, and Equatorial Africa, the families sit outside with their neighbors.
Still the photo-essay was a great snapshot of similarities and variances in the nuclear families around the world, in the way they approached domesticity and privacy, education (“This is How the World Studies”) and religion (“This is How the World Prays”). It was the best project for Magnum as an agency and would soon inspire Edward Steichen to put together his renowned ”Family of Man” exhibition.