Image courtesy of Kyler Zeleny.

Wrapping New Stories Around Old Polaroids

The ‘Found Polaroids Project’ asks you to infuse anonymous pics with fresh meaning

The homepage of Found Polaroids looks like your parents’ dining room table when they open that shoe box of old photos, except that the people in the images probably aren’t related to you. Or maybe they are, in which case you should talk to Kyler Zeleny, who created the project as a repository for the lone, lost polaroids he’s picked up at flea markets.

Now, years into the project, Kyler’s collected 6,000 images, and realizes that connecting the images with their owners is probably impossible. Instead, Found Polaroids has an online community of fiction writers who invent possible stories for the photos and their mysterious inhabitants.

For Polarr, Emily von Hoffmann spoke with Kyler about the images.

Emily von Hoffmann: So what is Found Polaroids all about?

Kyler Zeleny: Found Polaroids is project that has grown out of a collection of over 6,000 Polaroid images that span time and space. In some instances, we have reasons to believe that the subjects know one another — but others are single images from entirely dissimilar settings and unknown origins. We decided that instead of keeping the images stored in shoeboxes in rural Canada, they should be shared with the world.

Image courtesy of Kyler Zeleny.

The concept behind the project, which has culminated in an online repository, is to breathe new life into these long-forgotten images by asking creative minds to write stories about them. The project has grown from simply asking for 250–350 word flash fiction submissions into a multifaceted collaboration with photographers, writers, and other artists who also feel that found and vernacular photography should play a role in the collective memories of our society. Often, the project acts as a site of exchange where we can collectively interrogate our interactions with physical images and what that means in a digital world.

Image courtesy of Kyler Zeleny.

What makes this collection so unique is that most are entirely candid and were captured by someone who had a personal relationship with the subjects of the picture. In that sense, each comes coupled with a story that can really only be told by those in front of or behind the camera — but these stories have been lost.

“The concept behind the project is to breathe new life into these long-forgotten images.”

Initially, we were fixated on knowing the true stories, and then slowly it dawned on us that the importance of stories is not always in their actual truth, but rather in the truth that is reflected in our own lives within these stories. A really great story is simply one that holds a mirror up to our own reality.

EvH: 6,000 images is a pretty vast collection — over what time period and geography did you collect these?

KZ: This took a few years (3–4) and started small, I first collected some in Calgary, while visiting friends. I then found some in Holland and England and thought it was wrote interesting how images of what was seemingly 1970s America could have found their way to Europe. I was so intrigued by their mystery, each one representing what could be thought of as a mini-mystery.

Image courtesy of Kyler Zeleny.

EvH: How exactly are they found? Do you have any stories of wacky ways in which these artifacts were picked up?

KZ: As for wacky stories, I wish I had some. As I mentioned, I had originally started to collect them from flea markets and thrift shops, then moved to collecting on eBay, the modern mechanism for easy collecting. It was through eBay that I was able to collect over 6,000 Polaroids of other people’s lives. And with many digital interactions they are generally void of any impressive interactions. One thing that I found interesting is after years of collecting these I once found myself in a coffee shop talking to another collector, where we deduced that we were likely bidding against each other on the same images. Working on similar albeit different projects both dealing with Found Polaroids and with a goal of returning the images.

Image courtesy of Kyler Zeleny.

EvH: How did fiction writing become a part of this project?

KZ: The initial intent of the project was to return the found images back to their original owners, which proved mostly futile, except in a few unique cases. Understanding how futile it was to try to return these images, I thought it was quite a shame to allow them to enter oblivion (like so many other images do), so the idea was to allow people to contribute flash fiction stories about these people, about who they could have been, where they could have gone and what they might have known. It becomes, in a sense, more about the physical image and giving it a new life, a new journey, than it is a search for the person in the photo. It is about placing an importance on a lost image and telling a story about who the person in the image could have been.

Image courtesy of Kyler Zeleny.

EvH: Have any images been claimed by their subjects or relatives of their subjects? If so, can you tell us about those?

KZ: Well. Not many. Three people have come forward (two of which were featured in the same image). Sadly only one image belongs to them in the entire collection. Speaking about the experience and about finding them, I should say it was a great feeling. The sisters will be answering some questions about the image soon and an image of them today will be posted on our Facebook page shortly!

“I once found myself in a coffee shop talking to another collector. We deduced that we were likely bidding against each other on the same [eBay] images.”

The project was initiated on the idea that we could maybe learn something about the people in the images and if possible return them to their original keepers. Having found another person from the collection we are interested to hear their story, and possibly find out why we ended up with their images and if possible, we may even begin to build a web around this individual as they could link us to others in the collection.

The other individual, who was featured in 3–4 images has since having contacted us wished to remain anonymous, so out of respect for her decision I prefer not to talk about her images. But I can say she was very happy to see them found and hear we were keeping them safe.

Image courtesy of Kyler Zeleny.

EvH: Do you have any favorites, and if so can you share the stories — real or invented — connected with them?

KZ: I have a lot of favorites, but one that stands out is one that is on the website, Polaroid #95 (below). It is a straight on image of an older man who looks deadpan into the camera, as if it is an image for a police report or a passport office, but you can tell quickly from the background it could be neither. His glasses are great and the cream colored button-up shirt speaks of a man who grew up in the 1950s, you know that America with its endless possibilities. I think he pursued the ‘good life’ doctrine, just not sure if he ever achieved it.

Polaroid #95. Image courtesy of Kyler Zeleny.

The thing that draws me to this image is it reminds me of a time we no longer know, at least not people coming of age today. This is a time, like any time in the developed world, I guess where we yearn for elements of the past, the nostalgia that invades us, and the way we view or interact with images of the past. This image, like all the others in the collection, is telling us that a story took place, that this man lived a full life, we can see that in the wrinkles on his face. It is our job through the Found Polaroid project to gaze into his eyes and try to figure out what he could have witnessed and then to write about it.

Ian Cooney wrote a great story for it, which can be found here.

Image courtesy of Kyler Zeleny.

EvH: Can you share with us any plans for future work that you’re particularly excited about, related to this project or not?

KZ: I have some interesting projects I am about to launch, one that is an experimental collaboration with Russian photographer Yanina Shevchenko, where we photograph two Georgias while playing off of each other’s images and another project that continues my visual work in the rural parts of Western Canada.

As for the Found Polaroid Project specifically, the project has been doing well, it has founds its way to a number of conference talks, appeared in a couple of exhibitions and more recently in print — including some publications as far as Denmark and Italy. Although, none of these exhibitions, talks or publications have featured the actual submitted stories, and so moving forward the focus will be on publishing a book with the best submitted stories and a traveling exhibition.

Image courtesy of Kyler Zeleny.

The exhibition is really where the project finds its life. The idea for the exhibitions is to have the prints displayed large, something that engulfs the viewer. The stories themselves will not be hung next to the images, instead they will be heard through earphones with each Polaroid’s story read by a voice actor so that the audience feels a certain level of intimacy. The reasoning behind this is two-fold a) people don’t like to go to galleries to read, b) this should create a measure of connection, through the voice of the actors, that we hope leaves a lasting impression on the viewer.

Besides that there are ideas to have a larger selection of the Polaroids from the collection, possibly displayed in a mosaic polaroid wall and also to have a bunch of Polaroids in a container, so people could smell them as they have a very chemically smell to them, something we lose with digital image-making. I doubt many people could actively identify the smell of old Polaroids.

Follow the Found Polaroids Project on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook + Tumblr.

Interview by Emily von Hoffmann and Polarr — Pro Photo Editor Made for Everyone. Follow Polarr on Twitter and try our products.