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Where did you find these photos? Do you have any knowledge of the subjects, or where the photos came from?

I found these photos at the 25th Street flea market. (I go there regularly to look for interesting photos to post to my “Look at Me” project.) I was searching through a box when I realized all of the photos in that box were from the same family—the same people were on most of the photos—so I bargained with the vendor to sell me the entire box, containing about 600 pictures.

Back at home, I started organizing the photos—most of them had written information on the back. The first photo is from 1953, and the last one from 1977. In most of them are a man and a woman, a couple who took photos of themselves for more than 20 years. The woman was probably the one writing on the back as the man isn’t present before 1958, and we see her with another man in 1956. This couple traveled a lot; there are photos from lots places in the U.S. and abroad; they made a habit of capturing each other in front of famous places and views.

What draws you to photos of strangers?

I’m not just drawn by photos of strangers—I don’t care for a photo of your cousin sitting on a couch, drinking a beer. What I find haunting are abandoned photos, the ones from the past that you find in the street or at a flea market. I only look for casual shots of people, the ones they took one afternoon in the park, just capturing an instant, a moment they wanted to have a visual proof of to look at months or years later. Finding these photos means that nobody wanted to keep them, or that nobody was there to get a hold of them. Often, I hear arguments concerning digital photography, that there is no physical presence and that the images may never be seen (or may disappear in a hard-drive crash), but I don’t think the problem is the materiality of the photo—it’s whether or not someone is there to look at them. How much better are printed photos over digital if the former end up in a dumpster?

Looking at found photos, tons of questions come to mind: who are these people? How was their life, what was their job like, their relationship—did they love each other? Did they live together for a long time? Did they like their jobs? Maybe this one hated her sister? You can go on and on for each photo, each telling a little story you know nothing about. Out of the 600 photos of this couple, none shows them with children—did they have any? Maybe they couldn’t have kids, or didn’t want to.

One found photo tells a little story, but you start solving a puzzle when you see several photos with the same people.

Have you ever heard back from someone who’s seen their photo on your site?

Never. Despite the fact that I have around 800 visits a day on average (~200,000 visits in 2004), and that the site was reviewed on many portals, blogs around the world, and featured in the Financial Times and some magazines…maybe that tells you something about why these photos were found in the street or at a flea market; nobody was there to look at them, or nobody cared.

How long have you been doing the Look At Me project? Do you get lots of submissions?

My wife and I found some photos (one, two, three, four) in front of our building in Paris one night in 1998. They were found in the middle of some furniture and old clothes—I guess an old person had died and the heirs (if there were any) didn’t want the photos. Since then, I’ve started looking for found photos. I built the site back in 2001 with 100 photos and started taking submissions from other people. Now, about a third of the posted photos are coming from submissions. I get around five to 10 submissions a week on average. And even though there is a clear list of requirements is on the site, I receive a lot of photos that have nothing to do with the project (cousin on the couch with beer, etc.).
 

Rosecrans Baldwin co-founded The Morning News. He is the author of Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down and You Lost Me There. His next novel is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. His Kindle e-book for The Morning News Editions, about visiting different American towns called Paris, was selected as a notable essay for Best American Essays 2013. More information can be found at his website. More by Rosecrans Baldwin