Small country towns are often collecting points for unique historical treasures. This frequently leads to locals donating entire collections of peculiar objects to nearby Op shops and antique markets. This was a major consideration when I applied for a residency at The New Zealand Pacific Studio (NZPS) which is located in the Wairarapa region of New Zealand.
The studio itself lies just off a major highway between two towns; Masterton and Eketahuna.1 And I thought that this would provide the ideal opportunity for me to further my research into found photography overseas. When I learnt I had been accepted as a resident for a few weeks in 2018, I eagerly packed my bags and prepared for my stay in NZ.
I started my search for found photos as soon as I arrived in the region. I popped my head into every second-hand dealer I could find, asking each shop for old photos. If they didn't have any, I would continue on to the next store and repeat the process. I continued this (admittedly strange) practice over the two weeks I was in residence. I would travel from store to store, town to town, market to market, asking people for any old photographs they had for sale.
I was most commonly met with stunned silence. The shop clerks would stare at me with a look of unease and distrust, trying to decide if I was serious in my request. I had never considered myself a sinister person before this. But, after having this reaction in nearly 40 stores, I began to feel like something about me was fundamentally disturbing.
A question inevitably followed the troubled stares “Why on earth would you want old photos?”
I started off saying “I’m a visual artist”, but this only seemed to complicate matters. The shop clerk would look me up and down suspiciously and ask “What do you do with them?” As though they thought I was more likely to eat the photos as part of a performance work than anything else. So I decided to test out a few different responses to the question. The most reasonable reply seemed to be “Oh, I’m doing some research”. This again lead to further questions, but it seemed to ease people’s misgivings a great deal.
By the time I had stopped weirding people out with my unusual request (or my general presence) they would become quite anecdotal. People would begin telling me of the photos the shop had been given in the past, of their own family albums, or the photos that were held in the local museums and archives. But, after this, they would finish with saying “No, sorry, we don’t have any at the moment”.
It was then my turn to ask “What do you do with them?”.
This would cause the unease to resurface, and the answer always seemed to be “oh, well… we usually throw them out… or we shred them. They’re not really worth anything”.
And in a sense, they were right. Small, glossy pieces of paper plastered with images of complete strangers are not really worth anything. If these prints were abandoned by those who knew the people pictured, all ties had been cut. The photos became simple, historical curiosities in an increasingly digital world.
In fact it does almost feel like a form of voyeurism when you find a stranger’s album in a store and start rifling through it. It’s like you are viewing a part of someone’s life that was never intended for outside eyes, something that should have always remained private and personal. But if these images are constantly donated and thrown away, what becomes of the moments, the stories and people that these images once recorded?
As with anything, the images and memory of people cannot last forever. Yet now more than ever before, we seem to be hastening them into oblivion. We seem eager to move beyond our family histories and their ties to the past. Through this persistent disposal of personal documents we continue to lose moments of recorded time.
Perhaps this growing apathy toward historical photography stems partially from our own contemporary media culture. We are continuously oversaturated with visual products and advertisements that it is hard to see the value in such archaic forms of imagery. Indeed, what is the point of keeping ones own family records (or someone else’s) when there are so many similar photographs to be found elsewhere? Why
‘take a picture…when a web search from your palm device will give you hundreds,maybe thousands [of similar images]? The web results may not be your memories, but then again, when you pull out your own…picture 50 years from now, will you remember it anyway?’2
But doesn’t this speak to our growing reliance on digitisation and the internet to record and remember our personal history for us?3
All the complicated questions and ideas I had formed about images and personal ties seemed to culminate when I was handed an old resin heart after I asked a store manager for photos. It was one of the only things the store had kept from a donation of photographs and heirlooms. Set inside the heart was a carefully cut image of a soldier placed above two small fern leaves.
The object itself wasn’t beautiful, but it had obviously been created out of love. To the right person, to a loved one, this token probably meant the world. Yet to an outsider it appeared like a poorly constructed, kitsch souvenir. It’s entire function was to serve as a reminder of someone, but now that function had almost become pointless. What possible meaning could this object have to an outsider?
I would be the last person to say that we should hold on to excess stuff we don’t need, minimalism exists for a reason! I try to abide by William Morris’ quote; “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”.4 But maybe old photographs actually do serve a purpose. They help us to remember where we’ve come from, what life was like for those who came before us, and how the world continues to change. We no longer sustain the same story telling traditions that helped those before us recognise those who lived before them. But we have a wealth of photographic records of our ancestors lives. Maybe we should try to treasure these images a little more. Maybe we could hold on to a few select images from our old family albums. Maybe we could keep the ones that makes us smile, the ones that remind us of who we are and what it means to be human, rather than throwing them away in bulk.
Thank you to the Wairarapa Archives, Eketahuna Museum and to the multiple shops, individuals and businesses who helped me with the research and allowed me access to many beautiful collections of local photos!
1 Masterton, one of the largest towns in the region, has a population of roughly 21,000 while Eketahuna (only a 10 minute drive from the studio) has a population of just over 440 people.
3 We once used photographs to help us remember now we seem intent in depending on digital technologies to