[PRC Summer Interns Chris Maliga and Stephanie Rosario carried out the following email dialogue about the documentary film Other People’s Pictures (2006, directed by Lorca Shepperd and Cabot Philbrick), which is available for viewing at the PRC. Find more information about the film on-line here. The Editor.]
The film was pretty straightforward. It started out talking about snapshots and their interest to people, and sellers asking why anyone would want to collect other people’s photos. They interviewed various individuals who collect different types of photographs. Some people collect photographs showing Nazis in everyday life [what the collector refers to as “the banality of evil.”—Ed.], others collect photos of strong female figures and girls dressed as boys. Some people collect photographs that remind them of their homeland (Hawaii was one example). There is also a collector interested in mutilated photographs. Everyone wants to find something special in anonymous photographs of perfect strangers, whether it’s something they lost or an attempt to view something from another perspective, such as the man who lost his family to the Holocaust. At first I found this sort of odd. However, once they began talking in more depth about the appeal of these snapshots it all seemed to make sense.
That’s a pretty good summary of the film. It mostly took place in the flea markets where the collectors find these snapshots; occasionally the filmmakers went back to their homes to learn more about their personal interest in the photographs. I agree that the whole thing seems pretty odd, then starts to make more sense once we know a little more about the collectors. We all have these memories of our families or our past that we value, and it’s a powerful thing to see these random snapshots of someone else’s personal story and feel a connection to a person we’ve never even met.
The way a person is trying to save his own or even someone else’s personal history is actually quite admirable. You may not know anything about this photograph but you catch a glimpse into a moment in their life. The person taking the photograph may not have been a “photographer” per se but they captured a moment in time, a moment someone else fell in love with and can relate to. This I feel is the whole point of photography, to tell a story, to capture and amaze. Which these snapshots do to some people.
Something else I found interesting is that the film focused so much on the buyers of these snapshots and didn’t talk much about the sellers. The only interaction we really have with them is when a buyer is haggling over something. Sometimes they sell snapshots by the album, but a lot of the time they are willing to break them up so that someone can just buy the individual pictures. It seems like those albums or boxes of pictures are often just a small part of what someone is selling at the flea market. I’m surprised that someone would be so ambivalent about their own family photos that they would just put them in a box to be sold to total strangers, who, as it turns out, find all sorts of meaning in them. Are these sellers trying to get rid of bad memories? Do they have an overabundance of random pictures floating around that they’re trying to manage? How do they go about putting a price on their own memories?
When watching the film, I never really thought about the people who sell these photos. Obviously, they find something magical about these photos as well. At first, I didn’t understand the concept of buying and selling snapshots. The mere idea of owning a stranger’s photograph and hanging it on my wall made me feel rather uncomfortable. However, for these people it’s something more. It can be seen as a way for them to preserve a history. You might even argue that it’s a way for someone to fill a void that they have in their own lives. I also found myself wondering, why someone would just discard their past?
[The dealers are in most cases not selling their own visual histories, but albums and images they’ve acquired from other sources, sometimes the families and sometimes less connected sources.—Ed.]
I also wonder if they realize how important it is to the buyers that they do have these photos available. Obtaining them is such a catharsis for the people interviewed, such as the man whose mother joined a cult when he was little or the guy who buys almost any homoerotic snapshot he finds because he feels the need to preserve that history. There was also Mr. “Banality of Evil,” the man who bought up all the pictures he could find of Nazis going about their everyday lives. More than just exploring his own family’s history of being in concentration camps, he sees what he is doing as making a sort of commentary on human nature. If people can go about living ordinary lives while committing unspeakable atrocities, then is it really possible to fully trust anyone?
A portrait of a family can be the most beautiful thing or the most painful. It reveals a small moment of someone’s life and history. I think about all the photographs, especially those of people, I’ve seen in my life and how dear some of them have become to me and I think to myself, is that any different? There is something comforting about looking into someone else’s life. It’s almost surreal, almost as if this person only existed in the time this photograph was taken.
I wonder, too, about the people in the photos and what they are doing now. Do they know their photograph is being sold at flea markets to people willing to spend hundreds of dollars for them? Probably not. These snapshots are not only filled with people and their memories but also with a sense of hope and fulfillment for those buying the photographs.