— Teju Cole, New York Times Magazine
Wait — another iCloud hack? No, Cole is describing something way more analogue: the yellowed photo flotsam – snapshots at once mysterious, mundane, and intimate — that washes up in flea markets and garage sales, to be picked over by collectors.
One such collector is Cole’s friend, artist Zun Lee. Over the years, Lee has rescued thousands of “orphaned Polaroids” from oblivion – pictures whose subjects had only two things in common: all were of strangers, and all were African-American. These pictures became the photo archival project Fade Resistance, Lee’s way of showing an authentic slice of everyman Black self-representation in an era fraught with black hoodie mainstream distortion.
Back to the question of family photos in the hands of strangers. How do they end up there? And what is it about this that creeps us out?
Our personal photos are our memories made physical; if they end up on a card table at a swap meet, clearly something bad has happened. Something has fallen apart. Some part of ourselves has come apart. And that’s not something any of us welcome. To the contrary: we strive to be whole. We look for ways to put things together, to put our house in order. Like Zun Lee.
Cole describes how Lee didn’t originally set out to make art from the photos. Collecting Polaroids came from a more visceral – even existential – place:
LEE WAS RAISED IN GERMANY BY KOREAN PARENTS. IN HIS 30S, HIS MOTHER TOLD HIM THAT THE MAN WHO RAISED HIM WAS NOT HIS BIOLOGICAL FATHER. BUT BECAUSE HER RELATIONSHIP WITH THAT MAN, WHO WAS BLACK, HAD BEEN FLEETING, SHE REFUSED TO TELL HER SON MORE ABOUT HIM. THIS REVELATION, AT ONCE MOMENTOUS AND LIMITED, CHANGED LEE’S LIFE. TO MAKE SENSE OF HIS PERSONAL LOSS, AND TO EXPLORE HIS CONNECTEDNESS TO BLACK AMERICA, HE TOOK UP PHOTOGRAPHY.
In other words, Lee turned to photography – and later to collecting, curating, and organizing photos of people he knew nothing about — as a way of making himself whole. He was on a quest to put his house in order.
This impulse towards order is profoundly human, an especially strong reflex when things feel out of control. We can see this anxiety reflected in the sudden and unlikely stardom of Marie Kondo, who teaches a decluttering methodology with serious knock-on effects:
– Marie Kondo
It sounds trite – e your stuff, change your life — but Kondo has tapped into this deep need we have to bring the scattered pieces of ourselves together again, and create order from chaos. Which begs the question: Once everything is in its place – then what?
Then, the theory goes, we’ve freed up the energy to do the big things that really matter. Testimonials on Kondo’s web site describe clients who’ve gone on to lose weight, leave bad marriages, and ditch unsatisfying jobs. Reading between the lines, we could be forgiven if we assume these clients, now living more authentically, have achieved greater peace of mind. And we can only hope that Lee’s own journey towards wholeness has helped him in similar ways.
Still, it’s cold out there. There’s no guarantee that little pieces of ourselves won’t wind up in a shoebox in the hands of a complete stranger. But we can try to get (and keep) our houses in order, and in so doing, use our newfound energy to do good things.