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What would you save in a house fire?

Choosing which personal effects you'd rescue before escaping an inferno is the burning question being documented by Foster Huntington. He tells Will Dean about his new art project

From Apple addicts to music obsessives, it's surprisingly easy to find oneself defined by the things we own. It's even easier to knock people for having consumer passions. Surely we should be defined by what we do rather than what we have and what we can afford.

However anti-consumerist someone may be or however little money they may have in their bank account, it's almost certain there will be a handful of items that they feel they couldn't live without. It's this truth that the 23-year-old American Foster Huntington has explored in his six-month-old Burning House project, which involves collecting photographs of possessions that, if the chip pan went up, people would rush around and hold to their chest as they went down the stairs. "What would you save?" is an old dinner-party question. So why ask it?

"I'm interested in how the things that people own and what they gravitate towards reflect their interests and what their backgrounds are," Huntington says. "I was working in design at Ralph Lauren and [that relationship] was something I always thought about professionally and as a hobby. I thought that the Burning House would be a way to capture that connection and allow people to share parts of themselves."

It's a project that makes the viewer, as soon as they hear about it, start thinking up a list. The traditional answers – pets and photo albums – are heavily represented in the images. But there's also a technological shift. Possibly the most common items are Macbooks and iPhones, which now take the place of possessions that would have been big and clunky to rescue, such as photo albums, record collections and work files.

This leaves the Burning House escapees a chance to express their own personal and family histories – from band T-shirts to inherited jewellery, books – like a signed first edition of Douglas Coupland's Generation X – and more. "A lot of the things that blow my mind are just these super personal items that you never could dream up," Huntington says. "A couple of weeks ago a woman from Sweden had a photo of her when she was about five-years old and a picture of her stillborn brother." (You can see this here: ind.pn/stillborn.)

And then there are items that, while special, possibly need a more thought. "There was a guy from northern California who had a piece of stone called tektite [from the Gobi desert], which scientists think is created when a meteor hits the desert and creates so much energy that it turns the sand to glass. I thought that was pretty... though if it can survive being part of a meteor strike I think it could survive a house fire."

A few weeks after creating the Burning House, Huntington left what many would consider to be a dream job to travel around the United States in an old VW van, taking photos of people's Burning House lists for a forthcoming book.

He's found that strangers, friends of friends and others are all keen to share, perhaps because having a space to outline the few key essentials gives us the opportunity to work our what we really value in life. So, there's only one thing left to ask: what would you take?

If you live in the USA and would like Foster to photograph your Burning House list, get in touch with him via theburninghouse.com