For me, nothing is more satisfying than discovering hidden gems in secondhand shops and estate sales. After all, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. I can spend hours sifting through boxes of old photography equipment.
Two years ago, I came across a collection of loose, dusty photos. I looked to see if there were any names on the backs. I thought: if these were mine, or my family’s, I’d want someone to return them to me. So I made it my goal to do so for others.
I’ve since visited estate sales and secondhand shops weekly, and have accumulated more than 50,000 of these items. I organise them in big boxes all over my house in New York. Photographs, memory cards, home movies, undeveloped films, photo albums – you name it, I’ve collected it.
I’ve also set up a social media account to help reunite items with their owners or other family members. The first item I posted was a VHS tape of a family holiday that I digitised. It was a video of two parents and a son of university age on a trip in the 90s – the son was wearing a T-shirt with the words “Wesleyan swimming” on it.
My social media followers contacted athletic departments in universities across the US and asked swimming coaches from the 90s if they recognised the student. After just a few days, someone identified him and we tracked him down on social media. He couldn’t believe it and was ecstatic to be reunited with the tape. He then recreated some of the movies with his own sons.
The quickest we’ve been able to find an owner is within two minutes. Someone commented below a photo I posted: “I think that’s my child’s preschool teacher.” The longest we’ve taken to find someone is four months, but I’m proud that we still managed to do it. There are thousands of photos that have yet to be reunited.
People are often quite emotional when we get in touch – most of these items are lost after a house move or a family death: the people clearing someone’s stuff don’t always know what they’re getting rid of. Sometimes people donate a camera to a charity shop and forget to take the memory card out. I’ve also heard stories about lost or stolen bags, or people having to sell the contents of their storage units.
We once managed to reunite a family with pictures from 1943, which was incredibly special. I found a canister containing two rolls of film at a shop in New York. Inside the canister was a note. On one side it said, “These pictures were taken in April 1943” and on the other side the name “Freidmann”.
One of my followers found a family named Friedmann on a heritage site and their old photographs looked similar to the ones I found. We contacted them, they confirmed their ancestors were in the photographs and I sent them their pictures. They were extremely grateful and said that a family member had recently moved out of New York, which is probably how the film ended up at a secondhand store.
I have some rules, including never taking items out of the rubbish, not sharing sensitive photographs and removing posts if the family does not want their memories online. Without social media, this project would not be possible. Every family I’ve contacted has been grateful to have their memories back. Only one asked for all of their memories to be removed online, but they were still extremely grateful to me for returning them.
I want to inspire people to preserve their own family history and memorabilia so that they don’t end up getting lost. With vintage photos, each moment someone has chosen to capture is special, as it was so expensive to shoot film. Nowadays, we don’t think before we take pictures with cameraphones, but back then someone had made a conscious effort to preserve that memory.
I’d love to create a building to hold all these memories. I want every photo and video to be digitised so they can be archived and preserved online. I’m bringing together a team to return the photos to their owners. People get hooked on the feelgood stories that come out of this and I do, too.
• As told to Elizabeth McCafferty
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