There are few sadder scenes than a lost photograph lying in the street. Though I have no attachment to the image itself, I cannot help but project a complicated history behind each photograph, and how it ended up in the street. Perhaps it is a dearly loved portrait of someone’s grandmother which they are retracing their steps to find, or maybe it was purposefully let go by a bitter lover after a breakup. The possibilities are endless. I wondered about them when I saw these discarded segments of personal histories fluttering in the breeze or wedged and damp in the gutter. Unfortunately, as our society trades paper for pixels, I haven’t seen one in years.
I recently became involved in foster care, not for a child or a pet, but for a photograph that may once have been lying in the street. The Photo Fostering Project is an initiative for “re-homing found, forgotten, and unwanted photographs.” Based in the UK, the Project acquires discarded photographs and, for the astonishingly low price of £1 ($1.66 USD) to cover postage and packaging (the photograph itself is free, just as if you had found or inherited it yourself), you can give one a new home.
The Photo Fostering Project began as a personal collection of found images, but quickly evolved into a global resource for discarded vintage photographs. The founders of the Project thought it strange that what they considered their most cherished possessions—their family photographs—could be so easily discarded by others. “Perhaps it’s because the need for a physical photograph is dwindling and people would rather now save their iPad from their burning house? Or perhaps it’s not that at all, and people’s want for the artifact is increasing in the digital age.” These are the types of questions that The Photo Fostering Project investigates.
The Project’s photographs can all be viewed on their webpage, titled the “Re-Homing Centre”, and range in size, format, and condition. Because many were discarded because someone once deemed them “no good,” the Project’s founders see something poignant in accepting a variety of conditions and allowing the fosterer to choose for themselves. I review and select photographs for a living, and yet the choice was surprisingly difficult. I scrolled past photographs of people I didn’t know and once again began to imagine a backstory. Ultimately, I found myself most interested in the images without people. Without a figurative subject to create a story for, I instead felt a connection to the anonymous photographers. I narrowed it down to two: boats in a harbor, and the garden photograph that I ultimately selected. The soft focus of the garden photograph suggests it was not made by a professional, yet the unusual vantage point shows an eye for composition. I connected with the boats for its nostalgia, which, while familiar, did not push me to think outside of my comfort zone. The purpose of the Project is to re-contextualize someone else’s history and find a place for it in my present.
For those who lack the wall space or décor to accommodate one of their photographs, the website displays a Creative Commons license to encourage people to use the digital versions of the photographs in their own art making. The photographs come from all over the world, and sometimes, a more culled collection will fall into their hands. This is the case with Farmer Brown’s Inn, a collection of photographs that had a more extended story to tell. The Project chose to publish these photographs in zine format.
My photo arrived in a small brown paper envelope with a copy of Farmer Brown’s Inn and a certificate from The Photo Fostering Project declaring my ownership, passing the title so to speak. While this document has no real legal standing, it reminds me that I have a certain responsibility to the photograph. Shoving it into a folder or flat file to be forgotten is not an option. I have assumed an ownership role and am now obligated to give this photograph a new life. After much contemplation, I chose a small silver frame and simple mat. This was a departure from my normal gallery-frame preference, but I felt that this piece deserved something more intimate. It now hangs on a wallpapered wall that I think fits with the time period in which it was made. I might move it around in the weeks to come, but for now, I look at it, and think of how wonderful it is to rescue a photograph from lying in the street.
Learn more about The Photo Fostering Project and how you can contribute.
Kat Kiernan is the Editor-in-Chief of Don’t Take Pictures.