The nostalgic narrative of Kyler Zeleny’s Found Polaroids

  • Text   Anna Sanders

Found Polaroids share with us previously unseen, unpublished images from their extensive archive.

Text: Anna Sanders

“We were fixated on knowing the true stories, and then slowly it dawned on us that the importance of stories is not always in their actual truth”

Originally a personal collection born from a curiosity for the vernacular, Kyler Zeleny, a Canadian photographer and researcher, began Found Polaroids in 2011. His project seeks to commemorate forgotten images and to tell stories about the subjects within them, with the hope that they might one day be returned to those that lost them.

In losing their owners, the personal significance attached to these images is lost with them; through the act of sharing and inviting new narrative they regain the importance they once had, perhaps even more so as they become universal: a collective shared memory. The accompanying stories, which give weight to these unknown, unclaimed images, not only give meaning back to the Polaroids, but take on a meaning beyond them. The narrative weaves the imaginary and the experienced, each fictional tale of lost loved ones and fond memories reflective of the story-tellers own life. Personal heartache finds redemption in words, final goodbyes are finally said.

We spoke with Kyler about his collection of 6,000 Polaroids, the nostalgia they create, and the cathartic act of story-telling.


AS: How do you select which images to publish from your archive?

KZ: Yes, the images on the website only represent a fraction of the collection, the ones that were chosen were generally those that “spoke to me”. One of the fascinating things about having this many images is the way they can be curated in numerous ways. As a result, we’ve started to invite other artists and writers to make additional selections to add to the website.

How did Found Polaroids start?

The idea for the project came about in stages. I have always been drawn to images, particularly my family’s home albums. These 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 our ability to never know who these people were, what they have done, who have they wronged, or who loves them. I 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 this way I acquired over 6,000 Polaroids of other people’s lives.

How many Polaroids have been returned to their owners?

Three. An image of two sisters (full interview with them coming to the FP website shortly!) and another two images to a girl in California who wishes to remain anonymous. It is not an easy task returning images but it’s a great feeling when it can be done.

Do you ever create personal stories or see your own stories reflected in the Polaroids you find?

People ask me this and are generally surprised when I say no I haven’t written any stories. I plan to write one when I have some spare time, I have the image and the narrative I want to explore, I just need to put proverbial pen to paper.


What has been the most memorable Found Polaroid for you?

I have a lot of favourites, but one that stands out is Polaroid #95: a deadpan image of an older man who stares into the camera as if it is an image for a police report or a passport office, but you can quickly tell from the background it is neither. His glasses are thick and the cream colour button up shirt speaks of a man who grew up in the 1950s, and in America with its endless possibilities. I think he pursued the ‘good life’ doctrine, just not sure if he ever achieved it. The thing that draws me to this image is it reminds me of a time we no longer know, at least not people coming of age today. This is a time, like any time in the developed world, I guess where we yearn for elements of the past, the nostalgia that invades us, and the way we view or interact with images of the past. This image, like all the others in the collection, is telling us that a story took place, that this man lived a full life, we can see that in the wrinkles on his face. It is our job through the Found Polaroid project to gaze into his eyes and try to figure out what he could have witnessed and then to write about it.

Are there any Polaroids you have chosen not to publish online, or any you have felt were too personal to share?

That’s a great question. Really there are not any images I have omitted. I don’t really believe in creative censorship. There are grounds on which I would withhold an image though. If any images showed nudity or potentially abuse (as which can be found in the Found Photos of Detroit Project), then I would refrain from posting. These images can still do harm, most of the original owners are still alive and out there, I wouldn’t want to put an image online that would hurt them if they had stumbled across it.

In publishing these images online and inviting people to assign new narrative to them, do you feel they gain new significance, perhaps even more than they did when they were taken?

Yes, I think so! Photographs taken in times that have long since passed often have this eerie way of taking us not only to a different time period but also giving us an intimate look into the lives of complete strangers. That’s what makes these photographs especially unique – most are candid and are captured by someone who had a personal relationship with the subject. In that sense, each comes coupled with a story that can really only be told by the subject and the person taking the photograph but these stories have been lost – at least to us. Originally we were fixated on knowing the true stories, and then slowly it dawned on us that the importance of stories is not always in their actual truth, but rather in the truth that we can glean in our own lives from the stories we are told. A really great story is simply a story that holds up a mirror to our own truth or reality. Asking people to submit stories is essentially our way of asking them to breathe new life into moments that would otherwise become forgotten.


Do you feel Polaroids (in both their physicality and their expense) represent a more thoughtful, permanent way of recording memories over digital photography?

What draws me to Polaroid film as a medium its ‘one-ness’. I know every single image from the collection is an original copy and that no other copies exist. It really is the only photographic medium that allows us to make that claim. The image is both the negative and the positive – image and frame compacted into one. And so when I work on my own projects with Polaroid film (or sometimes Impossible Project of late), I know the images I am creating are not part of the process of photographing but are really the end product. Expense also factors into the equation. In a time when some claim photography as essentially a ‘cost-free’ practice (era of digital imaging), assigning an economic value implies added value. A mentality of making every image count because it is not cheap.

What cameras and medium do you personally work with?

I use a number of cameras depending on the project. I shot my last monograph – Out West – with a square format Yasica 124G, which is a lovely camera. I’ve also used a Polaroid SE680 to shoot the Polaroid stock I had, although I ran out last summer and have now switched to the Impossible Projects film types. I use a digital mirror-less Fujifilm camera for commissions. I’m using a medium format Pentax 67 II for my latest project Crown Ditch & The Prairie Castle (2015 – ongoing). I think it’s important for image-makers to experiment with different mediums to find the camera that speaks to them and their project. I don’t believe in a “one-camera-fits-all” mentality.


What’s next for Found Polaroids?

So much. There is a three-year plan.

The project has been doing well, its found its way to a number of conference talks, appeared in a couple of exhibitions and more recently in print – including some publications as far as Denmark and Italy – which might speak to the universality of the vernacular image. Although, none of these exhibitions, talks or publications have featured the actual submitted stories and so moving forward the focus will be on publishing a book with the highest quality stories and from there turn that project into a travelling exhibition. The exhibition stage is really where the project finds its life. The idea for the exhibitions is to have the prints displayed large, something that engulfs the viewer. The stories themselves will not be displayed next to the images, instead they will be narrated through earphones with each Polaroid’s story read by a voice actor so that the audience feels a certain level of intimacy.

The reasoning behind this is two-fold a) people don’t like to go to galleries to read (at least I don’t) and b) this should create a certain measure of connection, through the voice of the actors, which we hope leaves a lasting impression on the viewer. There are some other ideas, but I don’t want to share too much.

We are still collecting stories for the book. But in the meantime we are trying to do some ‘community outreach’. I recently ran a flash-fiction workshop for graduate students at York and Ryerson University (resulting in a small publication) as well some Polaroids were displayed as part of their annual graduate conference art exhibition. In June we will be collaborating with the Impossible Project at Nuvango Gallery in Toronto to put on an exhibition and provide some workshops and talks around flash-fiction, vernacular photography and the Polaroid are being planned.

Images courtesy of Found Polaroids