Found Film: A Peek into Someone Else’s Past – By Shawn Granton

After a year and a half back into film photography, I figured the day would come when I buy a camera with a roll of film in it. This day came in June, when I bought a Minolta Freedom Zoom 160 Date (also known as Riva Zoom 160) off of eBay. When I received it, I noticed the green of Fuji C200 in the little window on the back. The roll was about half exposed. I rewound it, and after determining that yes, the camera does work, I sent off the roll to be developed and waited in anticipation. The Freedom Zoom 160 was released around 2002, so the film could very well be nearing twenty years old. Will there be anything on it? And what will these images hold?

I admit that it’s a bit voyeuristic to do this. I don’t know who owned this camera before me. I don’t know what these photos could be. It could be very personal. It could even be pornographic. Or maybe I’ll be seeing things I shouldn’t see, like evidence of a crime. Now twenty years later someone will be coming after me, because I know too much. Or maybe it will just be random shots of this mystery person’s life, a collection of the mundane. Images that would only mean something to the person taking them and the people in the photos. It would be fun to try to piece together a story with only photos providing clues.

I got it back, and yes, there were pictures! I was surprised how well they came out, most everything looked correctly exposed and colors good.  And yep, it was no amateur porn or photos of a gruesome murder, just photos from someone’s day-to-day life.

I don’t know who took these photos, nor the people in them. I can just take educated guesses. The photos look like sometime from 2002 to maybe 2006. In my own life I’d be in my late twenties going on thirty. It looks like the people in the photos are around the same age too. They’re people who are at least a few years past college and living adult lives.

There’s three distinct settings in these photos: someone’s apartment, another person’s house or (most likely) apartment where a small party or dinner is happening, and at the office. These are the types of casual snapshots that these cameras were made for. And while the early aughts don’t seem that long ago to me, it was definitely a different era of photography, the pre-phone era when most folks would only break out cameras for special occasions or travel.

The roll opens with a shot of the apartment.

Then, the dinner.

Ah, cordless phone, and orange sponge paint. Very early aughts.

More cordless phones.

It’s been a bit since I’ve seen someone wear a hat like that.

Studying a pack of Export “A” Cigarettes. Someone must have recently gone to Canada, or is visiting from there.

There was something about being a male in their twenties during this era that made us give the finger when a camera was pointed at us. I should know, I was definitely not a stranger to this phenomenon. Thankfully I have grown out of it. Also note what appears to be a hacky-sack.

The next two shots are possibly from later at the dinner (or possibly afterward), as more wine and Corona was consumed.  Corded phone! These two shots were on the underexposed side, which makes me think the flash was turned off (though there looks like a little bit of red-eye):

We now move to the workplace. Most of the shots are of people at their cubicle. This one below was significant because it unlocked the secret of “Where were these photos taken?”

Now check out what’s on the cubicle wall:

It’s faint, but that flyer reads “Safety at 45 Fremont”. A quick google search shows that 45 Fremont is a skyscraper on 45 Fremont Street in the Financial District of San Francisco. So the work shots are definitely SF while the dinner shots could be either in The City or somewhere else in the Bay Area. Or maybe it was from an out-of-town visit to friends?

The last shot on the roll appears to be in the photographer’s apartment. And I must admit, it’s a pretty random shot for a film camera, showing the photographer’s partner or maybe roommate…vacuuming a sofa? Either before or after a bike ride. Why did they take this shot?

And that ends my window into someone else’s life.

Why did they never develop the roll? Perhaps when they were taking pictures at the office, someone noticed they were using a film camera. Perhaps they poked fun at this, then pulled out their brand-new circa 2003 digital camera. Why are you still spending money to get film developed, brah? The floppy disc on this top-o-the-line Olymolta can hold up to 50 photos at a time, and each photo has a resolution of 3 megapixels! So they march on down to Best Buy after work, buy a new digital camera, and stuff the Minolta Freedom Zoom 160 in the junk drawer. Then they move out of their apartment and the Minolta and that roll end up heading to Goodwill…

I developed this roll of film out of idle curiosity and a sense of duty: If there are photos on the roll, they should be preserved. But I must admit that this has affected me more than I thought. Maybe because it’s a glimpse to a yesterday that didn’t seem so long ago. Adult life tends to blur after you get out of school unless you have some significant milestones like a big move, traumatic event, or children. I don’t know these people, but I could have. It looks like I’d be the right age. Heck, I lived in the Bay Area for a year from 2000-2001, so there’s a chance I could have crossed paths with at least one person in these photos. If anything, these photos made me think back to a certain era of my life, one that seems like yesterday, one that in retrospect feels more care-free, but there was a lot of stress and angst about whether my life was on the right path. Did these folks have similar thoughts and feelings?

And what happened to these folks? I’m sure some relationships soured, while maybe some got married and had kids. Possibly some folks moved out of the Bay Area due to spiraling housing costs, a new job, a desire to return to the old hometown, family responsibilities, or a change of scenery. There’s the possibility that some of these folks may no longer be with us. Perhaps one of the folks depicted here will stumble across this post someday and be reunited with their past. That would be the best case scenario!

Thanks for reading! -Shawn

Know anyone in these photos? Please let us know and also share this blog post with them!

Check out my blog and me elsewhere on the internet here.

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31 thoughts on “Found Film: A Peek into Someone Else’s Past – By Shawn Granton”

  1. I too have developed an aged film. I received a Kodak from my mom and a roll of 620 film. The camera worked fine and I took my first ‘commissioned’ B&W photo for the year book in grade 8 ( I scored 50c for it, and had to ‘sell’ it to the publisher). The roll of film stayed undeveloped for more than 45yrs. When developed it was of my older brother and I from 1959 ish. Proving to some that my hair was white as a kid as it is now in my near 70’s….

  2. I recently developed a roll found in a camera bought from a german seller. I had no idea how old the film was, but the brand was Orwo Color. I pushed it a bit, along with another film, unfortunately it was likely much older than expected and the negative ended up almost dark. I still managed to get images by pushing exposure in my Plustek Scanner.
    With help from a german friend, we identified the city of Trier, and we think the pictures were taken in the 90s.
    The pictures are nothing spectacular, but here are two of them if you are curious:

  3. What are the ethical and moral considerations when developing somebody else’s pictures and publishing them on Internet? Not a critique, just opening the debate, as I have mixed feelings about it.

    1. Good question, Eduard. I had conflicting feelings about this, but decided to go along with it for a few reasons:
      Going through with processing seemed to be better than not
      The film is probably 20 years old. If it was more recent, I might not feel the same way.
      No one was doing anything “bad” or incriminating in the photos. If it was different, I wouldn’t share. (OK, there could be an argument about the “giving the finger” shot, but I’ve done that too, as evidenced in shots I’ve shared.)
      Sharing online is probably the only way to reunite the people depicted with these images.

    2. We did chat about this quite a bit, me and Shawn, me and Sroyon, then all 3 of us.
      We concluded that since the photos didn’t seem to be of anything secretive or private, it was ok to share them.
      What’s interesting I think is that we have shared images like this before that were likely from the 60s and this question didn’t come up. They were viewed with more historical interest.

      1. I wonder how much of the “historical interest” aspect has to do with how old the era seems (or doesn’t seem.) Shots from the 60s definitely feel like a different era. The early to mid aughts? Not so much. None of the fashions seem that different from today, and no outfit worn in the photos would feel “embarrassing” if someone was sporting that look today, save the guy with the super-beanie (or if this was Canada, super-toque.) And I’m sure some offices still look the same.

  4. Markus Larjomaa

    a) by 2003 most digital cameras used Compact Flash cards

    b) the phone in “More cordless phones” surely isn’t a “cordless landline”, it looks like a Nokia 5110 to me 🙂

    1. a) IT’S A JOKE
      b) Maybe? I’m no expert on cellphones from that era. I just see those two metallic strips on the bottom of the phone and assume they are the contacts for cordless phone charging.

  5. Tbh I find it very disturbing to see these pictures with identifiable faces being published without consent. I get the curiosity of developing an old film left in someone else’s camera, but publishing such private moments, even if seemingly trivial, is a completely different matter entirely. If it were me in these pictures, I wouldn’t write this message here, but to my lawyer instead.

    1. I’d be interested to know where you think the line of acceptability is in terms of publishing found images is?
      At what point do they become historical. For eg, we have shared film before that was images taken on a school trip in the 60s I think it was. Many of the people would still be alive, but we didn’t question sharing them in the way we did we these images.

      Also, I’d be interested to know you you are aware of any laws that have been broken here. Or would the call to a lawyer be to find that out too?

      (Genuinely interested in the discussion here, as I didn’t and don’t know where I stand either)

      1. I don’t know for sure if laws were broken, that’s precisely why I’d call a lawyer. There are strong candidates though, depending on the country and state you’re in. In the US, there’s the right to publicity, for example, which is not a federal law but most states recognize and apply.
        Then there’s much more strict privacy laws in other parts of the world, of course. Americans tend to forget that the Internet isn’t american and subject to other laws in other countries (no blame intended). While it’s probable that the photos show only US citizens, it’s also not a given. I am from Germany, and there, publishing such pictures, with persons that could be identifiable in them, without their consent, would break laws and warrant at least a cease and desist order. The persons shown would be eligible to be compensated for damages by violationg not only my right to publicity, but also in “inimate space” (a construct hard for me to translate to english. Basically it means that the right to inviolability of the home as the most protected private space has indeed been violated).
        As far as drawing the line goes, I’d personally would not publish pictures that show people which can be identified, in situations that are clearly set in private spaces, without their permisson. I can’t know how harmless or damaging they may be to them or people connected to them, as trivial as they may seem. Such pictures could, in theory, endanger careers or families just by connecting the people shown. Or they may cost someone the upper hand in a job interview because HR doesn’t like middle fingers or alcohol. Facial recognition is a thing, you know. Sure, sounds like a stretch to you or me, but balancing the interest in being able to publish relatively mundane scenes involving common people with the potential risks of doing so, I’d personally opt for caution.

        1. Hello Jimbo-

          I understand your concern. But one of the things I wanted to do with this post was maybe reunite the photographer and participants with these images. And while it’s probably a stretch that it will happen, it definitely wouldn’t if I didn’t share these shots. And once again, these shots are old, most likely 20 years old. I’d feel differently if these were more recent shots. Does this German law about “intimate space” last forever? Would you not be able to publish something from 20, 30, 50 years in the past?

          Perhaps it’s a legal grey area, and no I am not a lawyer. Street photography is all about taking photos of people without their consent, and you don’t see much of a complaint when there’s posts here or elsewhere. True, street photography is (usually) done in public places and there are laws (at least here in the US) protecting it. But I’ve seen some street photography that’s more invasive/creepy than the shots I posted here, even if they are in “public”.

          And if a company isn’t going to hire me because there’s a twenty-year-old shot of me out there on the internet, flipping the bird, well, that’s probably not a company I would want to work for.

          And there is precedent for doing this: FOUND Magazine, a magazine that publishes found photos, notes, and other personal artifacts. They’ve been going for almost 20 years and as far as I can tell there hasn’t been any lawsuits or other legal action against them.

          1. I absolutely don’t doubt your intentions. If anything, see my posta as a different point of view on matters.

            The “intimate space” thing is basically a qualifier for a more severe violation against the right on publicity, which, as far as I understand it, does not really end – in theory. Iin practice the person whose photo was published would have to file a complaint, which wouldn’t be possible anymore after they died.

            As far as street photograpy is concerned, that is quite a grey area in Germany. On the one hand, we have rather strict laws on privacy, and publishing a photo of a person without consent is basically illegal. On the other hand, street photography is considered an artform, and thereby protected by our constitution. Which means that if a photographer is being sued by an individual for being photographed AND the picture being published without consent, it’s basically up to the courts to weigh the right to privacy and on publicity against the freedom of art, and that can go either way in each individual case. It gets even more complicated than that, because a person might lose the right to publicity if they’re not a fundamental part of the scene depicted. Photographers don’t have it easy here, so it’s always a good idea to ask if you can take the photo, if possible.

            The difference between street photography and found photos, from the german law point of view, would be that the former is a creative work (as in art), and the latter isn’t. Something like Found Magazine probably couldn’t exist here, unless they had a team of people trying to obtain the rights to publish the photos.

      2. Michael McDermott

        The big problem I see here is that identifiable people are in these shots. The moment faces appeared I went oh oh. All these people would have reasonable expectations of privacy especially since the photos were taken in a private space. This is definitely not from a public space where you could. Being private means that if you intend to publish those pictures in any shape, manner, or form then you will need a release from each person. On top of that the author was not the photographer so he did not have permission from said photographer. So this made me uncomfortable especially since it puts you out on a thin limb legally. I would have passed it by a lawyer first but then I wouldn’t have used the shots with faces to begin with.

        1. Hello Michael-
          Initially I had the idea of obscuring people’s faces, but since much of the intention of sharing these pics was to try to reunite them with the photographer/participants, obscured faces wouldn’t do that. See my response to Jim for more on the matter you bring up.

  6. In a similar vein, albeit digital rather than film, some years ago my parents found a compact camera in their front garden. whether it had been dropped or stolen and then thrown over the wall we will never know. I don’t think they ever took steps to find the owner and so it lay untouched in a drawer for a number of years. When they both died within a couple of months of each other at the end of 2019 I found the camera when I was clearing their house. I extracted the card and found photos of a family holiday, a day visit to somewhere that appeared to be in the Cotswolds and a number of outdoor images of guests at what was likely a wedding, judging from their dress.
    I made the assumption that the owner either lived in my parents’ home town or was visiting family or friends there and so I posted a selection of the photographs in which people could be clearly identified on a local Facebook group. Within three days the camera was back with its original owner and nobody had any complaints about the photographs being displayed in a public forum. I guess if they had shown someone with somebody with whom they were having an affair then things might have been different but as I only used images that showed group shots I imagine there was little risk of this.

  7. Yeah – this is interesting, and my take on it it that it’s best to do it on a case-by-case basis.
    I’ll start off by saying that I would not publish these, but that I’m not outraged and really, who cares. The reasons I would not publish are that the photos are not interesting for any reason other than that they were found. We’re not learning anything technical or social or historic from them. In my opinion the chance that the people in them would be pissed off is greater than they would be pleased, and with the possible harm and no great good to balance it, why do it? (except to give a concrete example to the debate I guess)
    Okay – Here’s my Story; it may be compared with this.
    The Sureshot Supreme I bought from an op shop and wrote about here on 35mmc had a roll in it. The roll showed a family at Christmas and a wedding. By looking at the shots I found a street sign and worked out where they were taken. I checked Real Estate records and fund out when the house was last sold, and that helped me date the photos to within a year.
    My best guess was that the camera belonged to a man whose wife was in some of the shots, and that as well as a Christmas there was the wedding of a daughter.
    In some cases I’d be going OMG I have to find these people and get these to them… But in this case, I figured – They were not important enough to be processed immediately. The camera probably went to the op shop when the guy died. From my guess his wife would be dead or close to it when I got the shots. The daughters and grandkids are way more likely to be creeped out than grateful if all this appeared, so let’s just leave it. So I left it.
    I think – on consideration – that in the instance published here it might have been better as an hypothetical – “Hey I found the film” and then that could be linked to a reference to where it’s been done before in fine art that’s now in the public domain. There’s an excellent work by Christian Boltanski (1990) in the collection of the Tate Modern. Check out “The Reserve of Dead Swiss”
    But yeah, case-by-case I’d say.

    1. David-

      I do agree that the photos are boring, but that’s part of the point. It’s a brief window into the mundanities of life. It may not seem like we are “learning anything technical or social or historic from them” at this time because it doesn’t seem that long ago. But it won’t be that way forever. If the photos were fifty years old and depicted the same subject matter, it would probably seem different. And I think a case can be made that we can learn something “technical, social, or historic” from the photos depicted in the post. After a century of seemingly rapid change, where a photo from one decade would look quite different than one before it, it’s interesting how outwardly things didn’t change over the last 20 to 30 years. The changes were in small details like technology, and I had to squint to make it out. If it wasn’t for the cordless phones one might think the picture is more recent.

      As for me just saying “I found some film” and not depicting it, well, I don’t think that would be that interesting.

  8. Jerker Andersson

    One important thing to consider is the fact that the photographer didn´t remember to or care enough to take the film out of the camera before she or he got rid of it. If you do like that, you would more or less expect somebody else to find and make use of it instead. At least in my opinion, that is.

  9. Shawn, very interesting. I think these photographs are from 2005 or a bit later. Look at the flat screen monitor in the fellow’s cube. 2004 flat screen units were still chunky and thick. His monitor looks reasonably thin but is a small unit (20 inch?).

    Also note it looks like he has two keyboards on his desk.

    And the gent is wearing brown checked trousers? Now that might suggest the 1970s…..

  10. Shawn, my concern in publishing these photos would be that the copyright belongs to the photographer who took the images, not to the person who found the film in the camera. Why isn’t publishing someone else’s images without their permission a copyright violation? In the US, the copyright for works (published or unpublished) lasts the author’s life span plus 70 years. If these images were made in the US, it is difficult to see how the photographer would not have a copyright claim if they should ever see their images have been published. Did FOUND magazine ever state how they addressed potential copyright issues? Curious.

    1. Jerome-
      There is the concept of Fair Use when it comes to US Copyright Law.

      “Fair use is a legal doctrine that promotes freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in certain circumstances. Section 107 of the Copyright Act provides the statutory framework for determining whether something is a fair use and identifies certain types of uses—such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research—as examples of activities that may qualify as fair use.”

      I interpret what I have done as Fair Use as defined above.

      Also, I have made it abundantly clear that I am not the photographer of these photos and make no false claims on that. And I am not attempting to make money off of publishing these photos.

      As for FOUND, I don’t know. It’s been years since I’ve seen a physical copy of the magazine and the website doesn’t mention anything. I DO know that they published a book collection many years ago, and it was published by a major house (Simon and Shuster.) I’m guessing that the publishers had lawyers and wouldn’t go through putting out the book if it wasn’t legal to do so.

  11. Interesting. I have no knowledge of how Fair Use plays out in the real world. Is Fair Use granted by simply claiming it or is it adjudicated in court?

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