Who Lost Their Shoe? – by Chris Colten

There’s a phenomena that I observed over a decade ago, but only recently started documenting. And by recently, I mean a few years ago. It’s been a process.

It all started when I was out for a hike with a few buddies from my scout troop, traveling through a forest preserve nestled among subdivisions and office buildings. One of my friends told us about the alleged presence of an abandoned military base somewhere in the woods. I was skeptical. So were the others. But it’s not like we had anywhere to be, except out on the trail putting down miles. Off we went to search for old buildings – and maybe some stuff to throw rocks at. We didn’t find much except an old fence and a lot of mosquitoes.

Instead of backtracking to the safety of established hiking routes, we pressed onward and emerged from the trees onto the shoulder of a major road. After a quick discussion we decide that it’ll be easier to take the tarmac back to the car. As we headed down the pavement one thing became apparent – humans are complete and utter garbage and anyone who litters deserves to have their home and car filled with their discarded waste, and then some.

We saw all sorts of trash. Mostly plastic bags, empty beverage containers, a credit card, but the weirdest thing that we saw was a lone shoe. How did it get to the side of the road? Who just discards their footwear, one at a time? It’s not like this was a place where people often traveled by foot. Did someone have their foot out the window with a loose shoe? Implausible. It was baffling. Ever since that day, it’s stuck with me. I can’t help but notice the things people have lost, or perhaps left behind.

I started this photo project with the camera on my phone. After a night out at the bars, I noticed a set of vibrant, possibly hand painted heels neatly placed at the base of a trash can. My imagination ran wild, envisioning a basic Becky type stumbling home from the bar, possibly barefoot, shoes in hand. “My feet hurt, I can leave these here and get them later” she slurs to herself. With the heels jettisoned, she completes her journey and forgets all about the heels.

This project is part of why I started shooting film again. I noticed another heel while snapping away with a Fujicolor disposable, then a sneaker while putting a roll of expired Kodak Gold through my Super Program. Every time I went out to shoot street photography, the shoes were waiting for me. It slowly has become the focal point of my photo walks. Bringing a camera with me when going for a drive became the default. I never knew when the next lost sneaker would appear. They tend to surface in unexpected places.

I’m ultimately looking to document these stories on film. I want to explore, or rather invent, the circumstances that led to a pair of flip flops being abandoned by a fire ring, or a kids boot shoved into an information kiosk, or a cowboy boot laying in a pile of rubbish.

That said, some images are best left open to interpretation.

Who lost their shoe?

Sleep deprived and prioritizing caffeine over timeliness, she realizes that she would be late to a key meeting with a client. The rain fell heavily as she waits for her Uber. As she stoops to enter the gray Camry, her ankle rolls and coffee spills. The heel escapes from her foot. The driver is impatient, the shoe is out of reach. Cars are honking. The Toyota pulls away before she is able to retrieve it.

The two friends arrive at the slope. The pickup truck tailgate drops. To their dismay, it seems that a critical piece of equipment is missing.

“Dude, have you seen my other boot?”
“Don’t tell me you left it at home”
“Nah man, I definitely remember putting it in the back before we left”
“Are you sure?”
“I wedged it into this corner, there’s no way it fell out”

It did.

Sometimes I’m at a loss for words. It’s a combination of befuddlement and writer’s block. Determining how a shoe came to rest where it did can’t possibly be as simple as “it fell off”. I feel like there’s always more to the story.

I also question if these shoes ever find their way home. It’s not like there’s a lost and found for the side of the street.  And yet, things are sometimes optimistically placed in such a way that you’d think that there is.

The only plausible theory I can come up with: The prior owner of this boot decided to stick their leg through the railing. Their foot becomes stuck. Not wanting to starve to death, the pedestrian is faced with two options: lose the boot, or be stuck forever.

It had been a long day in the mountains. The whole family was exhausted. The youngest, age 4, was feeling particularly tired. And carsick. The ribbon of tarmac winding through The Rockies was full of tight twists, enough to unsettle a weak stomach.

The carsickness intensified. The four year old pleads for the car to stop. But the dinner reservation! There’s no time to pull over. The car accelerates. The lateral g’s increase. The sooner they get to the restaurant, the sooner this will all end.

The pleas turn to cries, which turn to screams. They try to strike the nearest parent to get some attention. The booster seat is too restrictive, their arms too short. The adults continue their conversation, doing their best to ignore the screeching coming from the backseat. In a fit of rage and a moment of brilliance, the child removes their sandal in order to extend their reach.
As they swing it over their head, the car takes another sharp turn.

The blow intended for an adult clumsily lands on the oldest sibling, age 9. They aren’t having it.

They intercept the sandal as it comes around for another attempted strike and promptly throw it out the window.


Rough night in Portland.

I want to pause the narratives to talk about something that really bugs me.

A lot of the shoes I’ve found have been in piles of trash, which tells me that they weren’t lost – they were dumped.

Now this isn’t going to become a rant about shoe waste. Things wear out, fall out of style, or get vomited in. It happens. But there’s no need to just throw them on the ground and walk away.

The deliberate act of dumping trash is disgusting. I hate it. I’m of the opinion that people who litter are trash.

Some of the shoes that I’ve seen discarded like this probably could have been donated. Except they rarely come in pairs. Perhaps this is the fate of the footwear that remains after the other is lost?

Is it really so difficult to properly dispose of things?

Or, are they being left on purpose so that the less fortunate can find them and wear them? Seems like a weird way to be charitable.

A long weekend in the mountains put on pause. The traffic along the I-70 corridor is too dense for comfort. Drivers grow impatient, tempers flare. Most are unaware of the accident just a mile ahead, blocking all but one lane.

Preparing to re-enter the highway, a road rager and their equally irate friend are cut off as they head toward the on-ramp. The barefoot passenger scrambles for something to throw at the offending car as they roll the window down. Their focus is on the target, not the projectile. In their haste to grab a drink bottle, they threw something else instead…

Here lies a shoe
Poorly laced
Probably lost
While moving with haste

Children pull stuff off their feet all the time, it’s what they do. I think. I don’t have any. But based on my observations, it happens.

What I don’t understand is why one would do so when there’s snow on the ground. Where were their parents? Do they not fear wet socks or cold feet? A snow boot can take considerable effort to remove. What am I missing here?

Sneaker sneaker, wedged in a post
Who was it that hated you the most?
Hidden away and out of sight
Was this a prank that didn’t go right?
Tucked in a gate, obstructing the path
This doesn’t add up, no logic in the math
Sneaker sneaker, lost and alone
Why didn’t you make it home?

So you know that part of the Toy Story Saga (spoilers) where the gang is headed for the incinerator, but they’re saved at the last minute?Now imagine the same story, but the toys are flip flops.

No cell service. No running water. No air conditioning. Nothing.

To put it lightly, the two brothers were not enjoying their first experience roughing it. It had only been 24 hours and they were already over it. Their father insisted that experiences like these build character. Fresh air, hiking, eating half-cooked hot dogs charred over an open fire.

On the itinerary for this particular day: Oatmeal for breakfast, followed by a 10 mile hike.

The boys had other ideas.

Closing thoughts

This project probably won’t ever end. I’ll be shooting lost shoes until I’m old and gray. There’s an endless quantity of footwear to be found. I just hope I have a camera with me whenever I encounter the next one.

I’ve contemplated expanding this to lost items in general. I’ve seen socks, hoop earrings, pants, hats, the list goes on. The dog collar I once encountered was particularly concerning, I hope the pup is okay.

Until I find more shoes, my other work can be seen on my recently re-launched instagram page @coltenphoto

Thanks for reading!

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12 thoughts on “Who Lost Their Shoe? – by Chris Colten”

  1. Brilliant! What a wonderful project! I agree that there is nothing more frustrating than seeing trash lying around, discarded with a tip of the head towards Mother Nature and the idea of recycling.

  2. Interesting ruminations and LOMO-eqsue images. Now how ’bout your take on the phenomenon of pairs of shoes tossed over power lines, danglin’ in the wind. A common sight in some US suburbs.

    1. Roger,
      Shoes over power lines generally means someone has passed away. Like a tribute. I know that’s how it is in poor minority ghettos anyway.

  3. brian nicholls

    Hello Chris,
    I absolutely love this post. It’s made me laugh the many times I keep returning to it. The cynic in me thinks that it is a staged parody of a lot of the stuff that appears on this site (?). No matter, well done for cheering me up no end and giving me inspiration. Great narrative too – ie about a ‘subject’ rather than cameras, f stops and focal lengths!!
    5***** on all accounts!!

  4. This is brilliant…. what an awesome subject. Ive
    also found myself taking pictures of discarded shoes! Glad to see I’m not the only one who’s crazy.. lol. Thanks for sharing this!

  5. I find socks. And I don’t always document it but I probably should. I think the same type of thoughts…”who is randomly throwing socks on the side of the road”? Also, totally agree on the trash aspect, is it really that hard to just dispose of trash properly? Great article!!

  6. Quite wonderful.

    I’m reminded of someone who decided to do their PhD on what people put on their mantlepieces above the fire. Lots of mmm’s and quizzical looks at the idea.. until she got the Doctorate, a book offer, a half hour BBC Radio 4 programme, and interviewed like a star.

    Keep going.

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