Credit: Courtesy Jason Lazarus

When the artist Jason Lazarus started “Too Hard to Keep,” a photo project he’s come to think of as more of an archive, he was the sort of person who had photographs in his collection that really were too hard for him to look at. If he felt that way, he reasoned, there must be other people who felt the same. So he invited them to send him their own painful photos through the mail or e-mail or, as time went on and technology evolved, their phones.

“People self-select their traumas to send,” Lazarus says. “I have to trust—and I do—that the submissions are earnest submissions. I’m fascinated by the images, not as fine art or high art, but as originals. I like the unpredictability of the project.”

“Too Hard to Keep” progressed in fits and starts, but now, five years later, Lazarus has amassed more than 4,000 photos. He posts them on a blog, and from time to time he’ll have an exhibition—he’s done 15 so far—in which he displays them as an installation, a room filled floor to ceiling with photos arranged by what he calls “artist logic,” using the more violent or colorful or classically beautiful pictures as points of departure to what he wants the viewer to think of as an ongoing conversation between the images.

“What I like about the project,” he says, “is that the images have a newfound utility and humanity and interconnectedness. Instead of serving the original owner, who may feel traumatized, they lead to a larger conversation about the idiosyncratic flow of images in life. This project insists on the interconnectedness of experience. It’s a common phenomenon: a photo changes meaning without the image itself changing.”

“Too Hard to Keep” isn’t an archive in a conventional sense: it’s not organized and searchable in a way so that anyone, even Lazarus, could quickly find a particular photo. Instead, Lazarus is more interested in what he calls “archival slippage,” how submissions disperse and come together in interesting ways with other photos that were submitted by other people at other times. But certain themes have emerged. There are photos of celebrations and graduations and what appear to be vacations, of people who are about to have or have just had sex, of patients in hospital rooms. There are a number of photos of dead animals lying on veterinary tables. There is a much larger number of pictures of children. A few of the photos have been vandalized, with parts that have been torn or scribbled out. But the submissions Lazarus finds most fascinating are the ones that show landscapes, without any people at all.

“To me, they’re the most powerful ones,” Lazarus says, “because you don’t see someone in the image. You can’t say, ‘I don’t know them, so I’m not interested.’ There are less immediate signals to turn off the narrative connection point.”

Some, maybe less than half, of the submissions have come with notes that tell the whole story behind the photos. Lazarus enjoys reading them—to a point. But on the blog or in an installation, he doesn’t want to give too much away. “I actively suppress most images that give the full context,” he says. “Like if someone gives me eight pictures, I choose one that’s evocative but doesn’t flesh out our understanding. It’s more compelling for us to use our own life experience to understand the image.”

He admits that sometimes viewers’ imaginations—including his own—can see things in a photo, particularly a photo of a child, that maybe was never there to begin with. “It could be as simple as, ‘My daughter hates the way she looked in braces, so I got rid of it,’ ” Lazarus explains, “and then I get it and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, what happened to this poor girl?’ ”

As the project has progressed, Lazarus has noticed that the submissions have shifted from analog to digital to smartphone snapshots and all that implies, namely selfies. Although he himself only switched to a digital camera a couple of years ago, he realizes that he may have to change his method of archiving to keep up with technology. “‘Too Hard to Keep’ might be a more unique problem to an older era,” he muses. “It’s less symbolic or charged to delete something. It’s easier to hide. A physical photo, you have to put it somewhere. But it’s easy not to click on a folder.” (Still, people do send photos. Recently, a ten-pound box arrived from the Pacific Northwest. Lazarus hasn’t opened it yet. He’s enjoying the anticipation of looking at it.)

Eventually Lazarus would like to turn his archive into a permanent museum, either in a physical room or online. When he did a “Too Hard to Keep” installation at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco in 2013, a historian there pointed out that the archive was a bit like a genizah, a storage area in a synagogue or Jewish cemetery where old prayer books are held before being buried. (In the Jewish tradition, it’s a sacrilege to destroy anything upon which God’s name has been written.) In recent years, the historian said, genizahs have been useful to scholars studying vanished Jewish communities.

Credit: Courtesy Jason Lazarus

“I thought that was really lovely,” Lazarus says. “I grew up in a conservative Jewish household. Judaism is a soft background in my life. Archives are—as any kind of knowledge—our sense of what people were doing. Maybe my archive will be valuable in a century to someone studying transfers of archives to digital storage, or things un- Instagrammed. I’m smart enough to have the humility to know it could be used for other applications.”

Although some people have written notes with their submissions about how grateful they are to have someplace to send their photos, Lazarus doesn’t think “Too Hard to Keep” is really about healing or catharsis. This distinguishes it from other archival art projects such as PostSecret, a website to which people send postcards bearing their deepest secrets. “There’s a constant fractured narrative flow of our lives,” Lazarus says. “I think that’s more true to life experience. You never really achieve catharsis. I think true catharsis is indifference. I never hear back from people later on who say they’re happy the photos are gone. I’d like people to forget in a year or two that they ever sent pictures rather than thank me.”

Since the project began, Lazarus himself has undergone a change: he is no longer the sort of person who finds objects too hard to keep. He thinks it’s more a function of growing older, though—he’s 39 now—than of the work itself. At the moment, he’s in the process of sorting through his own possessions: next week, he’s leaving Chicago, where he’s lived for the past 21 years, for Tampa, where he’s taken a full-time teaching job at the University of South Florida. Recently, he went through his Facebook feed looking for people here who he could invite to his going-away party and realized how many of his close friends no longer live in Chicago.

“It was a nice moment,” he says. “I realized that a network gets dispersed and becomes active in other ways. It’s a more aerial understanding of what we’re doing in a certain place. It was in Chicago where I established my adult values and interests. I feel like I’m carrying the ethos of the city around with me.”  v

Credit: Courtest Jason Lazarus