Photographs have always been powerful. Images like Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl with deep, searching eyes and Nick Ut’s picture of a naked Vietnamese girl severely burned by a napalm attack don’t speak, they scream. But when context is removed and artistic or photojournalistic intention is stripped away, what is left is something quite different.
Artist Jason Lazarus wants your photos that are deemed too hard to keep. Not ill-taken selfies or unglamorous drunken pictures you’d want to untag from Facebook, but photographs that you can’t bear to exist. Started in 2010, the archive is a repository of photographs that people want to get rid of, but can’t quite bear to let cease to exist. Photos may be physical or digital. The only condition? That any other digital copies be deleted. “If you’re going to part with it, part with it,” Lazarus says frankly in an interview with NPR.
However, not every idea that comes from an artist is art, and despite the fascinating concept behind the project, declaring the collection an art project is tenuous without the individual photographs actually being taken by Lazarus or even produced with artistic intent in the first place.
Still, there’s something eerily transfixing about the otherwise haphazard assortment. Some photos are shocking, some painful; some are badly amateur, others, beautiful, and every single one – puzzling.
An incomplete reflection of a woman in a rear-view mirror. A ripped-up strip from a photo booth. A giant pair of knickers hanging from a door. As you scroll through the plainly-designed blog looking at random photos with absolutely no context, you’ve very aware that you are viewing something private, despite not knowing the stories behind them.
There are obvious ones – a woman with a black eye, a bloody ankle spread across a stretcher, a person-shaped cut-out in a group photo. But the less obvious ones are far more intriguing, as you imagine the possible heartache behind them. Perhaps the baby in a picture died before its next birthday, or maybe the contributor quarrelled with a loved one in the empty room depicted. In some, people have even asked for the photo to be shown faced down. Whatever the case, the knowledge of the pressing importance behind the photo, however unbeknownst to us, makes them seem more valuable than any pedestrian picture.
Although calling the project art may be toeing the line, what may have started out as a cathartic way of ‘disposing’ deeply personal photographs without complete deletion lurks, in its midst, an emotional aesthetic that engages the heart and the mind. This photography archive forces us to reassess what art is and who makes it—the creator, the producer or the viewer.