The Disposable Memories Project is a global photography experiment, sharing experiences in good old fashioned analog style. Since its conception in 2008 The Disposable Memories Project has exploded into an international community of savvy snappers; cameras are deposited in public places with invitations to be picked up, used, past on and then returned home by post. We chat to founder Matthew Knight about the project’s spontaneous birth in a dry cleaners, polar exploration and eighties nostalgia.
Image 11, Camera 210, Australia.
How and why did The Disposable Memory Project come about?
Back in April 2008, I was standing in a dry cleaners in Balham. Whilst I waited, nestled between lint rollers, ironing board covers and coat hangers, was a stash of disposable cameras. I hadn't seen one for a long time, so was initially amused by them, but an idea popped into my head about leaving them around London, to see if anyone would find them, take photos and return them.
Image 25, Camera 22, somewhere in the Netherlands.
Within an hour, I'd purchased a handful of the cameras, stuck a couple of scribbled labels on them and set up a blog. I left the first outside a cafe minutes away from the dry cleaners, and the project was born. Four years on, 450 cameras later, we've visited over 70 countries, over 500,000 miles travelled and 30-odd cameras have returned home.
The initial concept has a 'community' feel behind it, but did you anticipate the extent to which it has grown through people releasing their own cameras and the breadth of countries they have journeyed to?
No, not in the slightest, it was never intended to be a community or collaborative project - I'd just planned on dropping cameras where I visited, mostly around London. It went global pretty quickly though. A friend of mine in Scotland and another in Boston, both emailed to ask if they could set up similar projects in their local cities, after seeing a tweet I posted. I offered to help them track cameras through my site, as I'd already setup the blog, the maps, the camera codes, etc.
Image 13, Camera 235, Singapore.
Not long after that another friend asked if she could take a camera on a trip to Berlin. This was the very first that was found - at Checkpoint Charlie. Not long after that, someone I didn't know in San Francisco asked if they could take part, and dropped a camera in the US, so it rapidly became driven by the people who were dropping cameras, rather than me. I don't think I've actually released a camera in over two years, so my role is simply curator. It's a wonderful demonstration that people love the project enough that they want to be part of it.
Image 3, Camera 15, Unspecified festival.
The Disposable Memories Project is all about shared experience. Is the visual expansion of knowledge that photography affords a positive or negative?
Digital technologies have caused a shift from capturing a moment for later reflection, to one of intention to share (and often in real-time). This can create situations where people are more focused on capturing the moment than experiencing it. I think this is a temporary blip, and within five years, capturing those moments will no longer take effort. Ambient and ubiquitous devices will capture life in stream, which you can play back and select the moments you'd like to share and relive, like a replayable memory.
I think being able to tell visual stories and share our moments with each other at virtually zero cost can only ever be a good thing. However, I also believe that people do need to have the occasional break from desperately trying to capture everything for posterity, and live in the moment a little more. There's nothing wrong with selfishly enjoying a sunset without posting it on Instagram.
Image 5, Camera 308, The Gambia.
Despite the digital technologies you mention, people still go mad for disposable cameras - what do you think it is that makes our love for them so enduring?
I think there's a romance towards disposable and toy cameras as they're obsolete, yet they live on in our memory. We remember a time when images were not so high quality, when the colours were a little washed out or too saturated, before accessible photography was of professional quality. For my generation, that's the 80's, it’s our childhood, it’s those pictures of us standing in a garden with our parents.
The whole Instagram / Lomography / disposable camera style of images, for me, is all about evoking that warmth, removing the hard crisp and sterile digital edge. It's akin to preferring vinyl to MP3. The medium itself adds something to the message. So, I think toy cameras, disposables and Instagram make us feel happy because of the connection to those slower, softer days of our earlier lives.
I also think, though, it's a generational thing.This is part of the reason I've launched The 100, which is giving disposable cameras to 100 people aged between 1 and 100 - to see what each age makes of the disposable camera.
Image 4, Camera 110, Mongolia.
Which is your favourite returned camera and tell me more about the journey it has been on?
I have two favourites - Camera 29 and Camera 159. Camera 29 will always be one of my favourites as it was the first to return, so has a very special place in the heart of the project. It was so exciting to see the images which came back from the camera, and despite not knowing any of the people in the images, I feel like they're old friends now (in fact, Matt and Kris who featured in a number of the images are friends of the project now, and we email from time to time!)
Image 15, Camera 159, Polar wilderness.
Camera 159 is my absolute favourite though, as it travelled to the two most extreme places on earth, Greenland in the far north, and the South Pole. It may also have travelled to the North Pole too - we're not sure. It's one of my ambitions to travel to the poles, so for one of our cameras to have made the journey feels like a real achievement. I don't think there is any further we can travel beyond the South Pole - so clearly the next destination needs to be outer space!
Image 11, Camera 159, The money shot!
To get involved or check out more of the images go to The Disposable Memories Project online.