Kyler Zeleny is photographer, educator and doctoral student based in Toronto, Canada. He is a guest editor with the publishing house ‘The Velvet Cell’ and the founder of the Found Polaroid project. He initially 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 he was able to collect over 6,000 Polaroids of other people’s lives.
“I have shot Impossible Project film ever since they began to produce it. And in some ways this motivated me to search out the original Polaroid film and to shoot a project using the instant medium. These images, which seem banal and rather pastoral, are special to me because they reflect my rural upbringing. In some instances these images detail environments that no longer exist, people having moved on, or buildings having been destroyed. Instant film becomes a poetic medium; the idea of documenting dying rural environments with a dying medium. Of course, there is the silver lining to it all, the medium itself is not dying, either are rural, instead what we can observe are changes. Changes that allow us to reflect on the past and leads to that funny thing we call nostalgia.
I really can’t pinpoint the exact point that the project started as it has always developed in stages. To begin, I have always been drawn to images, particularly my family’s home albums. Those were individuals whose laughs and mannerisms I could mimic, whose histories I could recount. We look at our family albums and can tap into a wealth of knowledge. What intrigued me about found images, Found Polaroids in particular, was the disconnect between the visual evidence that they existed with 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?”.
I tried to locate the origin of these images by talking to those who sold them to me but they did not know, they said they were acquired from estate sales and gave no further particulars. These individuals seemed less interested in the stories these images presented and more focused on the business of flipping the goods of the broke or deceased. The initial project idea was to attempt to return the images, and I was successful with maybe 2 or 3. But I had more than 6,000! So I thought, if we cannot know who they are in life, we could at least fictionalize who they could have been, to the point that the stories—although based in fiction—could of belonged to the person in the image.
“I think by keeping these images alive we assign them a value and I do think they intrinsically have value.”
There are a number of stories that I really connect with, I don’t want to focus on just one story, so I will tell you what I like about certain stories. Writing flash fiction can be difficult, you have a short window of opportunity to create a story arch, a narrative and so that can be difficult, what can be even more difficult is to create a story arch that actually feels quite alive. What I mean by alive is that the story moves and you can see where it moves. Essentially, the stories I like are the ones that are able to do in 250 words what most writers take an entire short story to do, which proves the point that less can sometimes be more. I also really enjoy stories that seem to contract themselves at the end, the kind of story where the last 2-3 sentences change the entire outcome of the narrative.
At first we asked ourselves, is the word count too limiting? This lead to another question: can someone write 250 words and still create a story? In our eyes the answer to that was ‘yes’ and so we felt the limit was acceptable. The 250-350 words is structured to force the writer to be concise, to write with a focused purpose and to make every word count. I also wanted to ensure we would have a good number of submissions and asking people to write 250-350 words seemed like something people could do and not feel intimated by. Something they could hash out on a Sunday afternoon for fun. We also wanted stories that readers could pickup and browse when they ‘had the time’.
Personally I primarily use analog cameras (film and instant). I do this because it helps me slow down my process and allows me to meditate on each image I take. In part this occurs because an economic value is assigned to each image—each press of the shutter costs the producer, something that has been forgone in the age of digital photography. I think it is also a great thing to see its revival. Digital cameras are great tools for creating and I use them often as “B-roll cameras” or for doing commissioned work. But there is something definitely magical about analog photography, and in particular the Polaroid format, that I think people should grow up understanding and interacting with. We live in a time where kids are growing up having had no physical contact with a pre-internet world, no VCRs or film cameras and that’s interesting as it creates a generational gap in a way. Think about it, we’ve been winding film canisters into cameras for over a hundred years; digital photography is a significant break from that process. Don’t get me wrong, it is great that we have gotten ride of VCRs and some other outdated technologies (in my option), but there is still something magical about film and analog processes—actual chemical reactions, a literal “writing with light” and not just digital sensors!
In addition, as examples of vernacular photography I find them beautiful. They also speak to a time where images could be made to appear instantly and largely without the use of digital technology, something we take for granted in the new media age of smartphone-photography. I also think these Polaroids and their story of how they were lost (although we don’t know the specifics) is something we can all use to reflect on, through this we can think about what our relationship to material images is and how this has dissipated overtime. We no longer print images or keep physical albums. There of course has been an important resurgence in people using instant film and I view this development rather optimistically. I hope the analog community appreciates the project and what we are trying to accomplish with it. I think the analog community understands the importance of physical images, whether that is prints or negatives, and that they actively want to contribute and promote projects that memorialize analog processes. This leaves me hopeful that in the future we can return more.