For many families, photo albums possess a magnetic, sentient power, placing them amongst the first objects to be packed away during hasty moves, evidence of events and times past that we fear losing forever in the absence of their still snapshots. This sentimental attachment to our own photographs is what prompts the alarming feeling that accompanies the discovery of photo albums discarded for reasons unknown, resold by vendors removed from their context at flea markets, or placed on a curb for passersby to snag for free. For artist Pariwat Anantachina, the compulsion to save such discarded relics—what he deems “lost albums”—began six years ago at the Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok.
“One day I was at the market having a conversation with a friend of mine,” Anantachina remembers. “He showed me a photo album that he had just bought, of a family vacationing at the beach. The pictures prompted me to ponder about how little time I had with my own family. I asked if I could buy the album from him, acquiring what would be the first album of my personal collection.” After this catalyzing acquisition, Anantachina began looking for more mysterious compilations. “The mystery of not knowing the subject or locations allowed me to subconsciously create connections with my own stories.”
While vernacular photographs are saturated in personal energy, there is also often a common thread uniting them—similar poses, themes, and backdrops—grounded in the culture-forming campaigns of companies like Kodak. The more Anantachina engaged with the different stories, families, and people sequenced and suspended in the albums he had collected, the more salient these patterns became. “I realized that I could curate the patterns and frequent elements into a photobook that tells a fresh story,” he says.
From afar, Anantachina’s reinterpretations of found photography look like scattered, whimsical collages; but upon closer inspection, we see that his creations are calculated and hyper-technical. Carefully cutting out faces, objects, and landmarks, he places numbers and user guides behind the photographs, their colourful geometrical information taking the place of the hyper-personal. “I believe the process of removing the original identity of the subject is crucial, because it gives them the privacy they deserve,” he says. After removing these identities, the artist keeps the faces, storing them in small Ziploc bags.
Anantachina says that while this gesture seems to be de-personalizing, removing the subjects’ faces also highlights the relatability of the photographs for his audience. When the subjectivity of facial features, expression, and identification is absent, it allows the eye to wander elsewhere. “People will begin to look for more clues—to have more curiosity,” he says. “Suddenly, the background becomes more important. When examining the artworks, I want the audience to ask questions about their family, their experiences, their pasts—and themselves.”
While the incorporation of user guides and technical manuals at first seems cold and removed, for Anantachina these scraps possess sentimental comfort. “My family business in agricultural machinery plays a big role in my interest in user guides and manuals,” he says. “It started in 2007, when I worked with mixed media and began transfiguring the machine manuals into a collage project called Zin Zin Machinery. I decided to use them again in The L_ost Album because I was interested in the factual information that the manuals convey, and how they can be altered when used in another context.” In this sense, Anantachina removes the sentimentality of facial expressions and identifiable objects and replaces them with a seemingly distant distraction, only to reveal that these technical graphics are actually quite close to home.
It’s an interesting way to play with the idea of family, and when asked what prompted him to explore this universal theme in depth, Anantachina recalls that it came about at a crucial moment for him and his wife. “In fact, I started making this project when I found out I was going to be a dad,” he remembers. “Working on the series allowed me to reflect on my current family life, because I spent time working on it while my wife and son were sleeping. Since I started this project, not only has my definition of the family—as a unit that sticks together through thick and thin, bonded through love in all situations, good and bad—not changed, it has proven true.”
Sharing his work with a wider audience, both as a book and in exhibitions, Anantachina hopes to inspire others to recalibrate their thinking around their own familial structures. “The artworks represent the relationships we all share with our families, lovers, and friends, and that we sometimes lose involuntarily throughout the course of life—just as the owners of these photographs accidentally lost their pictures,” he says. Spending time with the figures of these albums, Anantachina meditatively disassembled and restructured the meaning of these lost souls, breathing new life into them. “I think it is essential for everyone to reassess their definition of family,” he says. “I believe that when we gain a better understanding of how important our family is, we will do everything in our power to spend each day meaningfully. I display this collection with the hope that my viewers will see what truly matters, and live life accordingly.”
Editor’s note: We discovered Pariwat’s intriguing work in our HOME International Photography Prize 2021. For more inspiring discoveries, check out all the other winners, jurors’ picks and finalists here.