There is no mistaking the iconic white border and unique square shape of a Polaroid photograph. The gratification we enjoy today of seeing our photos instantly on our smartphones echoes the Polaroid experience of wildly shaking the image as chemicals slowly revealed the photograph before our eyes. Polaroids, most popular in the 1970s and 1980s, changed the way we thought about photography and made it easier than ever to take pictures. Over the last several years, Kyler Zeleny, a Canadian photographer-researcher and author, has collected lost Polaroid photographs. Inspired by his interest in photography and his love for the rich history within his own family photo albums, he started collecting Polaroids around 2011 from thrifts shops, estate sales and eventually on eBay. “What intrigued me about found images, found Polaroids in particular, was the disconnect between the visual evidence that they existed without knowing who these people were, what they have done, who they had wronged, or who they had loved. I was interested in knowing who these people were. I continued to ask myself, ‘who would abandon family photographs?’” Zeleny said.

Initially, Zeleny attempted to locate the people in the found images or at least the people who photographed them. He only found a few. In 2015, when he had amassed more than 6,000 images, he decided to share them with the world by creating an online archive called “Found Polaroids.” He invited creatives, writers and really anyone to participate in crafting fictional stories behind the photographs. “The importance of stories is not always in their actual truth, but rather in the truth that we can find reflected in our own lives. A really great story is simply one that holds a mirror up to our present reality. Perhaps we should be thinking of the Polaroids as ‘a box of unwritten letters,’” Zeleny said.

The “Found Polaroid” website allows anyone to look through the Polaroids and choose one to write a story about. You can also read the stories already written — some have several. Many of the photographs with stories have been curated into a book called “Found Polaroids.”

“The images are in equal parts heartbreaking and mesmerizing. Like slowing down to gape at a car accident, our curiosity and fetish to look outweighs our propriety. In order for found images to take meaning, we must look. Collecting is a journey, not a destination. Rewriting the experiences of these individuals is a collective endeavor done with respect for the universal human desire not to be forgotten. We will not forget you, ” Zeleny said.

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In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.

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