Sr. Photo editor for Digital Engagement

POLAROID #4  Your name is Clark. You are 9 years old. Your favorite thing to do is hang upside down on your school’s monkey bars. You like the world best when the ground is in the sky. It is early evening in late August: You are holding a picture that you drew with your friend Drew. He said, “Let’s draw our favorite place in the world,” so you drew a boy standing by a lake. You’ve never been to a lake before, but you dream that it would be magnificent, dark blues, indigos, all the colors that you can imagine. At your lake, there is an eagle. You name him Carl. You would have drawn a phoenix, but Drew said that phoenixes aren’t real so you drew an eagle instead. You told Drew that you named him Carl, and Drew snorted and said that was a stupid name for an eagle. But your dad’s name is Carl and he said he was coming to see you on Sunday, so you decide that Drew is a stupid name for a boy. When your mother takes this photo, insistent, out in front of the local pizza delivery truck, her hands shake. You watch her, and don’t understand why. She keeps telling you to smile, but it doesn’t feel right. She sends the photo by express mail to your dad.

POLAROID #62  I don’t buy jewelry for my wife. My wife wants me to photograph her. She likes when I photograph her in water. My wife, when we went to Morocco, said it was one of the best holidays we’d had together. And I agreed — it was sunny and it was lovely. My wife bought a velvetish swimsuit in Morocco, with patterns of butterflies blue and green. She said it was one of her favorite swimsuits when we got back. As we were unpacking, she said I really like that photograph you took of me in the water. I nodded, it was a lovely photograph. Later I gave it to her, and I wrote a note on the back of it. My wife, she’s happy. When we got back from Morocco she bought tagines and spices. She said she wanted to cook new things. She said, “Do you like lamb? I’d like to cook some lamb for you.” So I said I like lamb, and I don’t really know that I do. My wife, she bought a little cookbook with recipes in it. It’s got some really nice oriental patterns on it. She sits on the sofa and she puts her glasses on. They’re scaled in hues of green and blue. She sits by the lamp. My wife, she places the book between her thighs, and religiously licks her finger before she flicks each page. And when she’s picked one she likes she slips the photograph in as a bookmark. “This way I see it all the time,” she said.

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.












More on In Sight:

‘As long as I have Weimaraners, I will photograph them.’ William Wegman’s lesser-known dog Polaroids.

Questioning the definition of the American family, through 150 years of photography

‘It was one tiny bit of the world that was ours.’ Polaroids of the men of Fire Island Pines.

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.