Burning Down the House
Like many good ideas, it began as mere table talk: “If your house was burning, what would you take with you?” Twelve months, tens of thousands of followers, and a book deal later, The Burning House has received submissions from every continent except Antarctica. When he launched it, Foster Huntington was living in his Manhattan apartment and working in fashion. Oh, how the times have changed. Today, the 24-year-old lives out of his van, driving around Southern California in search of good people, good waves, and good photo ops. Have his priorities changed? Did all those submissions to The Burning House shift his perspective on what’s truly important?
What sparked the creation of The Burning House?
The Burning House spawned out of a conversation at a dinner party about online dating. People were talking about what questions they would ask to figure out what another person was like before meeting them. After thinking about it for a few minutes, I asked the group, “What would you take if your house was burning?” People immediately had their lists picked out. The musician said he would take his Gibson guitar. The photographer said she would take her Hasselblad and some negatives. The business consultant said she would grab a book her grandfather gave her shortly before he died. Everyone’s answers shed light on their interests and priorities. The conversation went on for an hour or so, and I thought the concept had merit.
What do you think the objects people would take from their burning house say about them?
I think that the items that people select are a window into their lives and values. It’s a portrait or self-definition project without photos of people. I try to not guide people’s decisions about what are the right and wrong things to bring. Instead, I select submissions that show as many points of view as possible. The book was a great opportunity to expand the question beyond the people familiar with the site. At the end of the day, I want the site to be a conversation about materialism. I hope that my personal standpoint is just one of many involved in the visual discussion.
It’s just over a year old, but The Burning House has become wildly popular. You must get a lot of submissions.
It’s received a little over 2000 submissions from all over the world.
What’s the most bizarre submission you’ve received thus far?
The most bizarre item the sites received is probably a broken coconut from an Italian guy. Curious, I emailed him, and it turns out one of his best friends broke the coconut on his head a few nights before he got married. That probably takes the cake.
Any interesting trends in the submissions?
The site gets a fair amount of submissions from Iran. As Westerners, we are taught that Iran is a dangerous place and a potential enemy. Their submissions make Iranians more human. Their items are a lot less materialistic than a lot of the submissions from the West. It’s a lot harder to be afraid of someone you know something about.
You grew up in Oregon, went to school in Maine, and worked in fashion in New York. Now, you’re traveling around the country in a newly purchased van. What’s the deal?
After graduating from college, I moved to New York to work for Ralph Lauren doing concept design. It was a fun job, but after a year, I started to getting restless. At the same time, The Burning House was gaining momentum, and I was approached by !t Books (a division of Harper Collins) about turning the idea into a book. It comes out on July 10. Taking the advance from the book deal, I decided to leave my job and hit the road.
When I left my job in August, I wanted to travel for a year. I’ve been on the road for the last nine months and have had the time of my life. The things I’ve seen and places I’ve been have only whet my appetite. I can’t wait to experience more. I’ve also fallen in love with surfing. From now on, it will be a big part of my life, like taking photos.
You have a few other Tumblrs and other projects in the works. What are they?
I am working on another submission-based Tumblr called #vanlife. After traveling around in my van and meeting other like-minded people on the open road, I thought it would be a cool idea to have a site that collected these rides. I hope by checking out #vanlife, people will be inspired to hit the road and travel as well.
I also have a Tumblr called Out of Reception, where I post a 35mm photo a day, plus a selection of my favorite shots from my Instagram feed. The site is a running documentation of my life on the road.
What would you take with you if your house was burning?
When I started The Burning House project, I was living in a relatively big apartment in Manhattan and working in fashion. Now I live in a van and travel around taking photos and surfing. My priorities have changed quite a bit. Instead of valuing my clothes and various other material possessions, I now value the photos i have created since leaving my job. They act as my visual journal. If my house was burning, I would take my undeveloped film and whatever negatives I could grab. Other than that, it can all be replaced. I’d grab the keys to my van too.
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