In order to pay rent one month, my partner and I ended up taking a Craigslist call last minute about a junk hauling job. We met this woman at her newly purchased 3 bedroom 2 bathroom foreclosure on New Years Eve’s eve expecting to quote the job and come back the following day to start work, but only if it seemed worth it. It wasn’t, but we were desperate.
As we began uncovering the layers of junk we started to discover endless more of other people’s memories and belongings. With every layer, a life. We found journals, books, notes, birthday cards, photo albums other sentimental items. We also found hypodermic needles, empty pill bottles, dirty panties and stiletto heels which retain some sentiment in their own right.
Between the two of us, we began arranging loose stories from each layer in order to keep our minds piqued and energy concentrated on clearing the house. One of the conditions of the job was that we were able to keep anything we wanted. So we started piles for ourselves of things we would take with us. We kept tools and electronics, a few books and kitchen appliances, a couple pieces of furniture and anything we thought we could sell.
As my partner picked up a cheap Kodak camera from a desk drawer, I found myself magnetized. “Give me any film you find. Negatives, rolls, anything.” Film became gold. I’m a digital photographer practicing film, but my mind was far away from that until now. Every time I’ve gotten a roll developed, it feels like I’m unwrapping a present. I knew that this was the portal through which we might peer indirectly into the lives of the ghosts of this house.
In the end, we found many strips of negatives and one roll of film. One roll with the tongue exposed. A roll I could take and shoot over. I was thrilled by the mystery of what was inside. It could be baby pictures or weird druggy nudes for all I knew and hopefully not both at the same time.
I spent a month or so shooting over it. I shot buildings in downtown, the forest near Mount Hood, even closeups of my partners genitals. Sadly for me none of the latter made it through to developing, but I’m sure he’s relieved at that.
After I picked up the negatives I brought them home and quickly scanned them in before heading to a class. I barely had time to look them over but what I could see wasn’t impressive or particularly interesting. The next day a patron at the bar I work at asked me about them. He had planned to come back and see me once they were developed. He could see I was disappointed, so he quickly dropped it.
A day later and nothing better to do, I opened the images in Photoshop to see if I could gather anything more interesting from them. I played in adjusting the contrast and exposure and as I did I began to discover other images within each frame. The film had come out multilayered, stained in what seemed like more than just a double exposure. I felt silly for expecting to gather anything coherent.
But then something came back to me as I was redeveloping them. When I dropped the film to the photo lab the technician and I only exchanged maybe a few words. He mentioned that the roll was about 15 years old. I would have been 13 when these were taken, which got me thinking about what life was like back in the 90s.
I was still a child then, but I was coming upon an age when things would start becoming much more difficult for me psychologically – so I began writing as a way to cope. My parents were good providers, but they weren’t always able to support me or my siblings emotionally. A fair trade for me; some kids don’t get either. Their attention was largely focused on basic needs and any other energy they had was heavily becoming influenced by the growing consumer industry.
My mom started buying hundreds of Beanie Babies that part of her treated like an investment, which is largely what they were marketed as at the time. My two siblings and I had about 250 of them each and back then they were about $5 a piece. My mother spent close to $5k over the course of our childhood on animal shaped bean bags. Later those things almost rotted away in the tubs they were stored in. There has to be a small part of her that cringes at that.
McDonald’s even got a hold of Beanie Babies and started putting them in their happy meals. Businesses continued cross pollinating like that for years; surging consumer superpowers supporting one another, snuffing out the little guys that would arise now and then. Cell phone companies and hospitals alike started becoming monopolies, even universities joined in after a while.
Follow your calculated dreams.
In high school we were still being told we could be whatever we wanted. Follow your calculated dreams. If you weren’t going to college or technical school you weren’t doing enough with your life – and this isn’t just a reflection of what I personally experienced, this was the conversation of the nation. Many of my friends spent money on technical schools that never amounted to anything other than a waste of money (see Penn Foster). Many of us were duped into serious debt that largely outweighs how satisfied or not we are in our profession.
What these passive encouragers, high school teachers and parents didn’t expect was for us to come of age in a period of enlightenment where we would begin a serious review of their references. Today we are learning to ask the right questions. We are now able to peer into every corner of the world unlike never before. But this sense of enlightenment has also worked against us, helping to reinforce complacency (if we allow it) and in strengthening the walls of dangerous echo chambers like those of parasitic hate groups.
When I look into these photos I feel the comfort of innocence and complacency but I am in the same glance losing my mind because of it. This is because the American Dream is within these images as just one of the layers smashed up against a whole bunch of bullshit. Just like it is now in reality. It is right there and I can see it, but I don’t quite know how to rip back the layers of bullshit without destroying the whole picture.
He who finds no way to rest
cannot long survive the battle.
Just like these photos, it’s difficult at this time to discern which image best portrays reality. With fake news, fake food, fake medicines and other hidden deceptions facing exposure we enter temporary paralysis daily. We struggle to resist the residual numbness that feeds our existent complacency. We are excessively weathered by looking at the world’s horrors, confused on how we as individuals can change it – many of us struggling to merely survive it. James Baldwin said it best, “He who finds no way to rest cannot long survive the battle.”
Since the finalization of the November election especially, but long before that we’ve been experiencing this throbbing feeling of helplessness. How can we help? What can we give of ourselves? And really, I don’t know that I’m trying to answer that question for anyone with this article. I’m just a broke millennial who cleaned a house once and found some film that finally compelled me to write on these things.
But this house that we raided for junk was once a home. Now it is again in the process of becoming just that for a new generation. Contrasting popular belief, I’ll venture to say that unlike this building, I don’t believe this country was built with a strong foundation. This is why as we uncover the layers we’re finding plumbing leaks, shitty lathe walls, a small number of impractically placed electrical outlets – not to mention the cockroaches that have taken up residence in every dark corner.
What we thought was our foundation is quickly being deconstructed. We are at the latter end of the process that is exposing the fault in it’s design. As a society, we are here now to develop the land in a way in which we are all able to become part of the greater picture, together working toward a reality that tells a new story, preferably one of total revolution.