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Things Left Behind

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Issue: 29 Section: Arts

June 8, 2005

Things Left Behind

by Jennifer Chrumka

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A recent issue of Found Magazine.
Compelled to make discoveries, intrigued by finding lost items, gripped by the kind of curiosity that leads one to eavesdrop, the writers of Found Magazine comb the streets for lost or discarded objects.

Created in 2001 by Davy Rothbart and Jason Bitner, Found Magazine delivers glimpses into the lives of strangers. It is a compilation of recovered personal treasures: photos, notes, lists, homework assignments and doodles; things that were left behind and that provide a keyhole view into contemporary North American culture. The enormous enthusiasm for the annual publication has resulted in the release of a best-selling book, an edited catalogue entitled "FOUND: The Best Lost, Tossed, and Forgotten Items From Around the World."

The magazine reveals how odd, humorous, and heartbreaking the private lives of random strangers are -- told through stirring love letters, humorous photos, lewd drawings, and simple "to do" lists, all found in buses, cafes, dumpsters, and library books.

Many of the photos are filled with history. A shot of a 1973 parade in Tijuana Mexico, or a black and white photo of a peaceful looking, elderly couple sitting on a porch dated "1889, Rio de Janeiro." Some found notes beg for a story, such as one written in capital red felt letters: "BUY JEWELLRY. FROM: YOUR WIFE." Another in green pencil crayon on a ripped piece of paper reads "love is the root of estrogen," while a list written in a child's handwriting repeatedly concedes "I will not throw during quiet time".

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Finders are asked to describe the circumstances under which their objects were discovered. A love letter proclaiming "I cherish you beyond question" and "I want you so deeply that my body sings with pain and pleasure" was found under a seat on a high school bus. The finder comments "it surprises me that someone on the rural bus route in Munster, Ontario felt such passion." Many of the finds come across as odes to pop culture and seem hilarious. Many have a slant towards the perverse.

Found even has a street team equipped with secret operative instructions to help their cause. The team puts up flyers to recruit finders and spread the word about Found Magazine. The magazine is distributed at bookstores (mostly in the U. S.) and can be ordered online.

An upcoming project at Found Magazine is the collection of polaroids or "super rare gems" as the website describes them, which should be available in the fall or early next year. Polaroids, Davy Rothbart comments, are "one of a kind," and exhibit "inadvertent accidental beauty."

I asked Davy about the magazine's tendency towards voyeurism. He believes it is natural to be curious about other people's experiences. He says that "urban intellectuals tend to be insulated" from others they share the city with and that Found forges connections between people.

We also spoke about how the readers and sources of Found seem to come from two different economic and social groups -- readers being somewhat more affluent than sources. Davy commented that an effort is made not to over-represent a particular demographic, but that it is true that "many notes are from people that are downtrodden or disenfranchised." He spoke about his great respect for the authors of the notes and feels that the least interesting way for people to read Found is to laugh at and ridicule the subjects or subject matter. Rather, he laughs at the notes because he is laughing at himself.

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The amount of popular interest and cultural investment in other people's private lives is made evident by the popularity, not only of Found Magazine, but also by the number of reality TV shows, ubiquity of Hollywood biopics, and the trend of reality journalism, where authors are also featured characters. They all share a common theme by providing windows into the lives of others.

I wonder if this interest lies in comparing our own lives to those of others, or in providing portholes for voyeurism? Is it about temporary fixes for insatiable curiosity, or the idea that a chance finding may lead to something bigger? Perhaps by getting closer to someone else's private experience, something about our lives will be revealed, some missing feature confirmed. Whatever the reasons, the growing fascination with found objects seems to convey a desire for direct, unpolished, unmediated experiences that are not forthcoming in other media.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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