The money you dropped on that new iPhone charger would buy enough ramen to feed a student for weeks. Buying a pair of cute novelty socks or a makeup compact may be a small expense to you, but it could feed a family in many parts of the world.
Photographer Stefen Chow and economist Hui-Yi Lin compare your desires to others’ needs in the clever series Equivalence – 100:1. The images juxtapose small purchases like phone accessories, makeup and handbags against the amount of common foodstuffs that much money could buy. It provides a compelling look at one cost of consumerism.
The pair live in Beijing and married almost a decade ago. In 2009, they collaborated on The Poverty Line, an examination of how much food $1.25 buys in various countries. They explore a similar idea in Equivalence, a series they started three years ago with a commission for a project about the value of money. The idea was to see what they could buy for 20 euros. Chow spent half that sum on a gold-plated necklace at a flea market and the rest on plain buns, a staple of Chinese markets. Turns out 10 euros bought exactly 100 buns. They photographed these seemingly disparate objects together and, struck by the result, sought other pairings. “There was a certain emotive quality to the project, even though what you’re looking at is very plain pictures of very common items,” Chow says.
Working in cities like Beijing, Hong Kong, and Tokyo, the couple spent anywhere from a few bucks to $30 on widely recognized objects like cookies, cosmetics, and clothing. Then they looked at how much food you could buy with that amount of money. In Japan, for example, you can buy 100 packets of ramen for the price of an iPhone charger. The comparison is all the more striking when the objects are laid out in a grid, a trick the artists perform in Photoshop.
Not all the consumer goods in the series are splurges, of course, You could argue, for example, that a cellphone charger is essential. But if you had to choose between charging your phone and eating, you might change your perspective. Equivalence – 100:1 suggests that not everything equivalent is actually equal.