Vintage Polaroid photographs pop up in any number of places, from antique stores to estate sales and eBay. Apart from the obvious aesthetics of these old photos, regardless of the photographer’s skill behind the lens, the stories contained within are often as interesting as the instant image itself. Recently, Oslo-based artist Kike Redondo stumbled upon a very peculiar collection of Polaroids while scouring a flea market in Lima, Peru’s city center. Typically, Redondo and his friend, Julio Blanco, visit flea markets and antique shops for their collaborative project Francotirador Semiotico (Semiotic Sniper), in which they look for old photographs to use as collage materials. But, the photos Redondo found in Lima were far too intriguing to be disassembled for another work of art. These found Polaroids were works of art in and of themselves, and are now the subject of the exhibition The Flamingo Illusion, now on at Oslo’s Cyan Studio Gallery.
As Redondo tells Impossible, he came across the photos in basket. First, he found ten instant analogue photos, all of the same woman winning money at casino slot machines. Then another ten of the same woman, then twenty more, until he had gathered 99 Polaroids that, as far as he could tell, belonged to the same series. The exhibition derives its name, The Flaming Illusion, from a flamingo graphic that appears on several of the winning slot machines.
“I could not believe my eyes,” Tamara tells Impossible. “All these years looking through flea markets and I had found a true treasure. I got so excited that my friend and I went straight to the nearest bar, put two tables together, ordered drinks, and started to lay down all the Polaroids as we tried to understand what we were looking at.”
Convinced that there was an artistic project in the series of 99 Polaroids, Redondo messaged his friend Paulina Tamara, who was then in London working her master’s degree. Redondo told Tamara that he believed it was the same woman in each photograph, in which she was always winning money at a casino.
“That was the moment I became obsessed with this woman and started investigate and tried to look her up,” Tamara tells Impossible. “I was like, who is this woman? Where is she from? How much is she winning? How can she win so much? How can she be so lucky? Why did they take pictures of her every time she won? How did the Polaroids end up in a flea market? Why did we only find the polaroids of her and no one else?”
“I think it’s really interesting how someone has kept the 99 images of just her, because in the background in some of the images you can see how there are a lot of Polaroids hanging on the wall,” she adds. “Not to talk about how many times of what we don’t see, which is how many times she has lost. Where are all the others?”
But, this assume she was legitimately gambling. Tamara actually has a theory about the story behind women in the images. While doing research, she came across an article from a Peruvian newspaper claiming that slot machines were used as money laundering tools during the country’s civil war in the 80s and 90s.
During this conflict, what once had been local gangs morphed into at least a 10,000-strong guerilla army. The time of strife was, as Tamara details, characterized by brutal kidnappings, the production and export of cocaine, and money laundering.
“The paper claimed that the casino owners were allied with a general of the army and believed the owners helped launder over $810 million dollars,” says Tamara. “During my research I also discovered that the casino in the Polaroids has been sold, and that may be the reason why these Polaroids were found at that flea market.”
Of course, this is just a theory—one that Tamara cannot prove. But, the Polaroids, dated from 1989 to 1996, do align with the general timeline of the Peruvian Civil War, and no one is ever that lucky on casino slot machines.
Whatever the truth may be, Redondo and Tamara decided to organize an exhibition of the images as found objects. They are interested in the idea of creating new perspectives out of older objects—ones not meant for public consumption.
“We went back to the moment when we first saw the Polaroids, and discovered that the questions we were asking were more interesting than the answers we could find,” Tamara says. “That’s how my life is everyday—I like the feeling I get when I get triggered by questions, not so much by answers.”
Redondo, for his part, finds the sheer number and repetition of images fascinating. It demands attention, pushing the viewer, as he says, into forming “codes and creating systems depending on your personal experience and knowledge to try to understand and make sense of what you are looking at.”
“You can almost compare this way of repetition to our use of images in a digital age,” he adds. “But, the difference being just that these images were made 25 years ago, way before social media.”
“It would be the modern selfie,” says Tamara. “‘I was at that casino, and I won the jackpot…’ And if you don’t have the image to prove it, they almost don’t believe you, right? The image now works in the same way as a souvenir.”
For Tamara and Redondo, the beauty of found images lies in the step between the unknown to known.
“It’s the same as when you make up the story of the person you’re sitting next to on the subway, or when you see someone´s bookshelf and try to imagine what kind of person they are,” Tamaro muses. “And, now we are exhibiting these at a gallery, which was probably not the intention of the photographer who made the images.”
Interview submitted to our magazine by DJ Pangburn. Reach out to him on Twitter: @djpangburn or Instagram: @entr0p1a