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What to do with photographs that are too hard to keep

Nicole Elphick
Published: April 27, 2015 - 12:00AM

Photographs can be a reminder of past joys, but they can equally easily bring to mind painful memories. For those snaps that now touch a raw nerve, many would stash them under the mattress, indulge in a little post-break-up bonfire or simply hit delete. But Chicago-based artist Jason Lazarus has come up with an ingenious way to elevate those remnants of heartache to high art.

Since 2010, the 39-year-old has been working on Too Hard To Keep, an archive of images that their owners no longer wish to be in possession of, for whatever reason. "The idea came about because I have had images that I didn't really know what to do with," says Lazarus. After some thought he hit upon the concept of a collective archive they could be stored in and anonymously displayed from – as he eloquently puts it, "a place that gives the images another kind of poetic possibility". After soliciting pictures from his immediate circle of friends, the project gained further traction on social media and submissions started rolling in from the wider public.

The amassed images are available to peruse online at the Too Hard To Keep website and have also been exhibited as an art installation. Viewed as a whole, the shots are imbued with a kind of melancholia, a seeping sadness that is threaded throughout. The pictures are shown without any explanation as to why their original owners no longer wish to keep them, instead inviting the viewer to consider their own interpretations of the possible stories behind the snapshots.

"To me, one of the things that indicated the project is successful is when I do the installations and people linger and look for a while," says Lazarus. "As images become so disposable, for people to slowly engage is, I think, an achievement. It means that they are engaged in the creation of meaning together with me. The project is sort of purposely simple to trigger much bigger questions about the things that link us together."

Lazarus receives on average 15 images a week sent through by email, text or post. Pictures can be shown either face up or, if the participant requests, face down. (Lazarus has a few of his own hard-to-keep snaps in the repository and displays those face down.) It is asked however that any images, as per the name of the project, are not kept by the sender, which means for digital submissions the original file should be destroyed once it has been given to the archive. "The actual transaction of handing over a photo has more meaning when it's the only one, there's a true release."

Not every image received is put on display; instead Lazarus sees his role as curating the shown selections to keep things varied. "I cherry-pick the ones I think represent new ways of looking at the project. So for example, there are a lot of categories that get reproduced again and again. Photography for a lot of folks is filled with conventions, so I'm always trying to texture the conversation as much as possible."

The images that he sees repeatedly submitted are one half or both sides of a couple in selfies, on trips together or in private moments. When asked if seeing a constant stream of strangers at their most intimate can carry a heavy emotional weight, Lazarus says it can be affecting, but feels that's part of the job of editing the collection, likening it to a pilot dealing with turbulence. Despite having spent five years peering at photos for the work, there are still shots that have the power to move him. "Images of kids are always pretty intense," says Lazarus of the pictures that he personally finds the most compelling. "Images that are literally crumpled or have creases. Rolls of film that haven't been developed."

Holding an MFA in photography himself, Lazarus feels there's something worth preserving and sharing in these candid, amateur shots. "I almost can't make certain pictures because of my training. It's hard for me to get loose or employ chance. There's a profound set of meanings that come out of vernacular images, ones that weren't made originally for an art context."

Lazarus hopes for the repository to run indefinitely and has even briefed a colleague as to how to continue on with the project in the event of something unexpected happening to him. "The archive doesn't propose answers, but it proposes to connect us with the way images exist in our lives. We're entering into a digital paradigm and the assumption is that digital paradigms are stable, but I actually think they're not. When people used to make photos they typically might not have thrown away the ones they didn't like, so the notion of editing our archives is very different. It's a big question right now, how we pass our accumulated digital experiences to the next generation. I feel like we're just beginning to realise what implications are there."

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