Thursday, October 22, 2015

Trying to Unlock the Mysteries of Old Polaroids

Click to enlarge

We know the date when this Polaroid was taken — Nov. 18, 1978 — and we know it shows a child named Nuchie and her father. But who were they, and where was the photo taken, and by whom?

Zun Lee doesn't know. The photo, which he purchased on eBay, is one about 3,500 discarded and found Polaroids that he's accumulated, all of them showing African American families in everyday situations. He's interested in documenting black life, but he's also fascinated by the question of how these photos became separated from their owners in the first place. In this excellent New York Times story and accompanying slideshow, he describes the photos like so:

There looms over them that question of dislocation and dispossession that made these images available to us. What are the circumstances that allow families to lose these images? It cannot be a good circumstance. You can possibly conjecture a history of gentrification, foreclosures. Some of the stories may not be so grave, maybe they just wanted to get rid of them. In any case, there are a multitude of interesting stories you could conjecture [regarding] how these images are available to us.

I'm sure most of us who are fascinated by found photographs have gone through that same thought process. How did these photos become orphaned and end up in this flea market (or scattered in an alleyway, or up for sale on eBay, or whatever)? Didn't anyone want to keep them?

Lee is trying to answer those questions through a new project called Fade Resistance, via which he hopes to use social media to help find the people and families shown in the photos and then return the Polaroids to them. It has the potential to be an amazing project — I'll be rooting for him.

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