Kyler Zeleny is a Canadian visual sociologist. He is interested in Found Images from family albums, conscious/unconscious construction of ‘deviant cultures’, alternative culture movements, and how this defines and influences social policies. His personal interests in photography, which is reflective of his rural upbringing relates to open space, landscape portraiture, and the archeology of rural decay.
He received his bachelors in Political Science from the University of Alberta and his masters in Sociology at Goldsmiths College, London in Photography and Urban Cultures. He is a guest editor with the publishing house The Velvet Cell and is a member of the Association of Urban Photographers (AUP). His first monograph—Out West—was launch this summer with The Velvet Cell.
AB: What was the first polaroid that really captured your attention? Describe it physically and how it peaked your interest.
KZ: I have a lot of favourites, but one that stands out is one that is on the website, Polaroid #95. It is a straight on image of an older man who looks deadpan into the camera, as if it is an image for a police report or a passport office, but you can tell quickly from the background it could be neither. His glasses are great and the cream-colour button up shirt speaks of a man who grew up in the 1950s, you know that America with its endless possibilities. I think he pursued the ‘good life’ doctrine, just not sure if he ever achieved it. The thing that draws me to this image is it reminds me of a time we no longer know, at least not people coming of age today. This is a time, like any time in the developed world, I guess where we yearn for elements of the past, the nostalgia that invades us, and the way we view or interact with images of the past. This image, like all the others in the collection, is telling us that a story took place, that this man lived a full life, we can see that in the wrinkles on his face. It is our job through the Found Polaroid project to gaze into his eyes and try to figure out what he could have witnessed and then to write about it.
AB: Are the people that submit stories for the polaroids generally people that you know? Or are you getting responses from strangers all over? Where did the idea of opening up for story submissions originate?
KZ: Before the site was officially launched, I asked a few friends to write stories, stories that would operate as examples for others who might be interested in contributing. So the vast majority of people who submit stories are strangers who have come across the project. We were fortunate to get some really good press that helped, especially press from Europe, so some of our stories even come from non-english speaking countries, where people contribute a story in their native tongue as well as in english. Which speaks to the power of images, they transcend language, as expressions and emotions are quite uniform, that is to say we are more united in our similarities than divided in our differences and the Found Polaroid project really hopes to build on this idea of shared experience and community.
The idea of opening up the stories to submissions existed for quite some time. The original intent of the project was to return the found images back to their original owners, although that has proved mostly futile, except in a few unique cases. Understanding how futile it was to try to return these images, I thought it was quite a shame to allow them to enter oblivion (like so many other images do), so the idea was to allow people to contribute flash fiction stories about these people, about who they could have been, where they could have went and what they might have known. It becomes, in a sense, more about the physical image and giving it a new life, a new journey, than it is a search for the person in the photo. It is about placing an importance on a lost image and telling a story about who the person in the image could have been.
AB: What is it about polaroid film that intrigues you? I think a lot can be said about how found polaroids are almost a contradiction of the documentation and fact that photography usually brings. Instead you’re left with questions instead of answers. Does this contradiction play a role here?
KZ: What draws me to Polaroid film as a medium its ‘one-ness’. I know every single image from the collection is an original copy and that no other copies exist. It really is the only photographic medium that allows us to make that claim. The image is both the negative and the positive – image and frame compacted into one. And so when I work on my own projects with Polaroid film (or sometimes Impossible Project of late), I know the images I am creating are not part of the process of photographing but are really the end product. In regards to photography as documentation or as witness, part of this project is about playing with that idea of what is a document, how do we assign truth to a document, if an image is lost from its original keeper or family and we apply a story to it is it really fiction? And if the answer to that question is yes, then how can we know for certain it is fiction? It could very well be the absolute truth, we just don’t know…
AB: What is your favorite story that has been submitted? Why?
KZ: I have a number of favourite stories, I don’t want to focus on just one story, so I will tell you what I like about certain stories. Writing flash fiction can be difficult, you have a short window of opportunity to create a story arch, a narrative and so that can be difficult, what can be even more difficult is to create a story arch that actually feels quite alive. What I mean by alive is that the story moves and you can see where it moves. Essentially, the stories I like are the ones that are able to do in 250 words what most writers take 1,000+ words to do, which proves the point that less can sometimes be more. I also really enjoy stories that seem to contract themselves at the end, the kind of story where the last 2-3 sentences change the entire outcome of the narrative.
AB: Can you give us a brief description of the events that you put on for this project/ or the events you’d like to plan in the future? Are the stories displayed along with the images? What’s the layout and overall goal of the exhibition?
KZ: The project has been doing well, it’s found its way to a number of conference talks, appeared in a couple of exhibitions and more recently in print – including some publications as far as Denmark and Italy. Although, none of these exhibitions, talks or publications have featured the actual submitted stories and so moving forward the focus will be on publishing the book with the best submitted stories and a travelling exhibition. The exhibition is really where the project really finds its life. The idea for the exhibitions is to have the prints displayed large, something that engulfs the viewer. The stories themselves will not be hung next to the images, instead they will be heard through earphones with each Polaroid’s story read by a voice actor so that the audience feels a certain level of intimacy. The reasoning behind this is two-fold a) people don’t like to go to galleries to read, b) this should create a measure of connection, through the voice of the actors, that we hope leaves a lasting impression on the viewer. Besides that there are ideas to have a larger selection of the Polaroids from the collection, possibly displayed in a mosaic polaroid wall and also to have a bunch of Polaroids in a container, so people could smell them as they have a very chemically smell to them, something we lose with digital image-making. I doubt many people could actively identify the smell of old Polaroids.
AB: How long do you intend to continue this project? And where/how often are you on the hunt for polaroids? Do you set out with the intention of finding them or do they usually find you?
KZ: I always thought about the Found Polaroid project as an ongoing project, and for that reason I don’t have an end date. Currently, we are working on what I would call a ‘three year plan’. We will continue to take written submissions for the next three years while working towards meeting our other project goals, primarily a limited edition book and a travelling exhibition. Another note on continuing, we really think it is a great writing project (or prompt, or creative outlet, call it what you will) that can go on indefinitely, we are trying to build a community around this idea and have started to collaborate with a number of partners to make this happen.
I don’t hunt as often as I use to for the images, I think the 6,000+ images I currently have is enough to work with for the next few years, although if i do come across some at a flea market or thrift shop and they’re reasonable in price, I’ll still snag them.
AB: How does this project inform or influence your personal work?
KZ: The Found Polaroids project is a welcomed break from my other projects that largely focus on issues of space, place, community and identity. I consider myself a keeper of these images, at least for now as I don’t know where they will go next. I am not an owner but perhaps someone who is curating a selection of them for the purpose of sharing them – essentially trying to give them a new life. I think it is fun to try and be a versatile with one’s project base, be able to say: “I can do this and this”. Or course some of the core literature that I draw from is the same, the big names like Sontag, Huyssen, or Mitchell apply across the field but the intent and approach is very different.
You can follow the Found Polaroids Project at:
And more of Kyler’s work at: