By Chelsea Miya
At the bottom of my grandmother’s closet are her most precious possessions. As she sifts through them, she picks up a small tin box, smoothing away the dust from the lid.
Every family has one: an old shoebox or photo album, passed down through the family.
That tradition is quickly becoming a thing of the past, though. Digital photography is now the norm and film cameras are becoming a novelty.
This year, the last of Polaroid’s film manufacturing plants shut down for good, and Toronto’s famous Kodak factory at Eglinton and Weston streets known as “Kodak Heights” closed in 2005.
All this means the culture of family snapshots is disappearing too.
Printed on the recycling bins at the corner of Young and Dundas Square is a collection of 90 snapshots of different women. Some of them brand new. Others are yellowing and faded, the people inside disappearing into the background like ghosts.
The one thing in common is that all of the women are standing in front of a house, hands folded, staring into the camera.
Last year, Stephanie Fiore won first place at the School of Image Arts festival, Maximum Exposure. Some of her work was posted on garbage bins around the schools as a prize.
But who are the women in the photographs? And how are they connected?
Even Fiore doesn’t know their whole story.
She dumps an entire pillowcase worth of family photos onto the coffee table in the Student Campus Centre.
A kaleidoscope of faces stare out from the snapshots. Young and old. Families and high school sweethearts. From Christmas morning to graduation. Some dating all the way back to the 1800s.
Passing students look at us suspiciously, but Fiore’s already digging through the pile for her favourites.
She began buying old snapshots from eBay about a year ago. It quickly became an obsession. Now, she’s collected over 1,000.
“They’re a constant source of inspiration” said Fiore.
Search for ‘family photo’ on eBay and you’ll get over one thousand matches. Most of them are from estate sales. When the original owners died, no one came forward to claim them.
“There is an element of sadness, especially because these are photos that were not intended to be thrown away or sold,” says Fiore.
“Maybe the people from the younger generation didn’t really feel a connection to them anymore. They were just taking up space, but I think they’re really precious.”
Even though the people in the photographs are complete strangers, Fiore thinks of them almost as people she knows.
One of her favourites is a shot of a mysterious traveller in a red jacket. In one photo, he’s waist deep in bulrushes at the edge of a river. In others, he’s at the foot of a mountain, in the middle of a vast field or surrounded by a thick ancient forest. But he always wears the same puffy red bomber jacket.
“I like to imagine where he’s travelled, who he’s with and what kind of adventures he’s been on,” says Fiore.
The most striking thing about the photos is how the same images are repeated. Thirty children in front of Christmas trees. Dozens of families with their new car. A hundred people blowing out their birthday candles.
Even though the women in Fiore’s recycling bin piece are separated by different cities, different countries and even hundreds of years, “everybody was still making the same photograph.”
“It plays on the idea of a snapshot being a very personal memory and at the same time a very universal memory that we all share,” she says. “The camera seems to come out at the same time for all of us.”
Fiore still shoots with an old, box-style camera from the 1960s. It costs $30 for a sheet of 10 exposures and another $30 to develop, but she’ll never abandon the traditional way of shooting.
“I’m working to pay for film, not nice things for myself,” she says.
Thanks to digital cameras, photos have transformed into dozens of slide shows thanks to Facebook. With every moment resting on the computer, a crashed hard drive can erase a generation of memories in the blink of an eye.
“There’s a certain kind of art to film,” she says. “With everyone going digital there’s something that’s going to be lost that I don’t think that we’ll ever be able to get back.”
My grandmother takes out a black and white photo of a beautiful woman. Her blonde hair is swept up over her head, and she has the same smile as my mother.
“Do you miss the people in the photos?” I ask, peering over her shoulder.
“Don’t ask me that…” she laughs, her eyes crinkling up as she smooths the picture. “My mother died when I was 16, and I still miss her… Forget genetics, it’s the memories that are important. This is my way of keeping them with me.”
I hate getting my picture taken. Whenever my grandma snaps a photo, I groan and duck under the table.
But by the time we pack away the box, I finally understand why photos are so important to her.
And for the first time, I wish I had a shoebox of my own.