The Anonymous Project Gives 70-Year-Old Color Slides a Second Life

May 18, 2018, 2:20 PM UTC

Less than a year ago, English-born filmmaker Lee Shulman bought 1,000 color slides on eBay for $15 and had them shipped to his Paris home. Though they were slides that others tossed aside and deemed useless, he discovered a genuine beauty in what they revealed. It was Shulman’s pure obsession with the imagery they contained that kickstarted the largest collection of color slides in the world, a collection known as The Anonymous Project.

Shulman’s photographical collection was fueled by the idea of preserving each original unique color slide to show the crazy thing we call life. With the help of his colleague Emmanuelle Halkin, a French photography book editor, they have already collected more than 500,000 slides that they’ve sifted through to craft a permanent, curated 7,000-slide collection. “Anonymous” applies because the names of the people in the images and the photographers who took the images will never be known or shared, nor are they relevant.

“The collection is not about who these people were, but instead what they were doing and what it means to be human,” Shulman said in an interview with Fortune. “In one word, it’s about storytelling.”

Shulman describes the editing process as very instinctive. He looks for an emotion or something trying to be told in an image, and the assumption that such urgent energy can give the slides a new life decades after being hidden away and thrown in a box.

“I feel a deep responsibility to these people [in the images] to give them a second life,” he said. “Most have disappeared, death, but it’s important to bring these to connect to the present.”

Photos that celebrate shared experience

The thousands of images crafted together are not about nostalgia, but the continuity of our lives and the celebration of life’s shared experiences.

“There is something so honest about these images, more honest than we’ll ever have today,” he said. “People are looking directly at you, and you see and feel an emotionally charged connection that has been captured in that way of life. The colors are so vivid and they seem so modern that it looks like a frame out of a movie for me.”

The slides come from an eclectic range of sources. Shulman finds them online (there’s an entire section of unwanted slides on eBay); he gets donations from people who don’t have the technology to use or look at the images; and he finds them at flea markets. Most images are dated from the 1950s or ’60s and show a post-war era, when people were rising out of a horrendous history and set out to live their dreams. Shulman says the majority of images are from the United States, where color film photography was more readily available and more affordable at the time.

He began to see recurring themes whenever he’d sift through the thousands of slides: Boxes filled with photos of several generations of a family, people posing with their cars, people enjoying the beach and people just being together. Sometimes there would be a letter attached with a description of the people whose lives were stored in that box. The digitized collection, sorted into the recurrent themes, has slowly become a sociology experiment that traces behaviors and life in the latter 20th century; when looked at closely, it shows that era is not too distant from our lives today.

“People took the same type of photos that we do today,” Shulman says. “It was their social media of the time. Back then, people still wanted to show [that] this how we exist, these are our things, this is our food.”

The project saw its first exhibition in Paris earlier this year. It was so successful that the project has partnered with Kodak and will be traveling to London in November. The interactive exhibit will be a comprehensive look at the thematic slides in their purest form—with projections lining the walls and eyepieces available to investigate the unique slides closely.

Our technological world has changed the very nature of photography: Thanks largely to the cameras embedded in our phones, more photographs will be taken today than in the entire history of photography, Shulman says. He predicts the future of art will be editing, archiving and the process of what we do with the millions of images. It raises the question: When we disappear, will we only have virtual, digital traces of our life or will we end up as photos in a collection like Shulman’s?