NORTH TAMPA — The pictures may appear routine to outsiders, but they vibrate with emotion in the hands of their owners.
A woman bathes in an industrial sink. A man holds his head next to an angel statue. Two couples exchange vows.
They came into the hands of Jason Lazarus because people across Hillsborough found them too difficult to hold onto, but somehow too valuable to simply throw away.
They've become part of Lazarus's "Too Hard to Keep" archives, a compilation of photos collected from around the world over the past two years. The project will be included in upcoming exhibits in Philadelphia and Belgium.
Lazarus stopped in the Tampa Bay area as a visiting art professor at the University of South Florida. Throughout the fall semester, he has taught an art class, advised five graduate students and worked with students to re-create cardboard Occupy Wall Street signs modeled from worldwide images found online.
Aside from that, he advertised his project and made appointments to meet locals who wanted to contribute. He is still collecting, although he will return to his home in Chicago next week.
Lazarus started accumulating pictures two years ago and now has about 1,500 photos in the archive, coming from as far as Europe and South America.
The project's appeal, he says, is in its inclusivity. The photos expose the pain and ecstasy of everyday life. It's a public partnership to create art.
In exhibits, they are viewed with no back story. But often Lazarus hears the stories. The man holding his head sent the photo to a former lover. She gave it to Lazarus last month, shortly after the man committed suicide.
A classic bound album engraved with a wedding date came with a note relinquishing ownership. Inside, everything you would expect. Except that the remaining smiling faces sit by empty spots where the black pages have been ripped.
"It went from elegant to macabre," Lazarus says from his temporary home in a Seminole Heights bungalow, decorated with thrift store finds, sipping a can of his favorite sparkling water.
The photographs, he says, mix fact and fiction, as memories do. A frame captures a slice of life, separating it from the context.
His favorite newest additions to the Tampa area archives include undeveloped rolls of film and a picture imprinted on a used white candle of an old man celebrating his birthday. He also likes landscapes, because he says anyone can relate to them.
There are rules for submissions:
• Keep no copies.
• Narratives describing the photo(s) will be kept, but not exhibited and are not necessary.
• Photos can remain in an envelope in the exhibit. (Some have contributed photos that they prefer not be shown. Viewers of the exhibit will see only the envelopes enclosing them.)
The archive scan be viewed at an exhibit in February at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center and then in March at an exhibit in Belgium.
Lazarus says the archive serves two purposes for those who donate: ridding them of the photo and allowing them to enter into a bigger conversation about the way we live our lives and how photography plays into it.
"I am the kind of person who would have images too hard to keep," Lazarus said.
It's how he came up with the idea. At first, he included his own in the archive. He won't reveal their nature. But looking at them regularly was so painful, he took them out, and shredded them.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 316-8342.