One of the less understood figures in Christian folklore is the sin eater. This person, usually a beggar, was charged with absolving someone of their sins by consuming food and drink that had been touched by the dying person before their passing. Through this ritual, the nearly deceased are eased of their burdens, their mortal infractions kept in check, and the spiritual health of the community at large strengthened.
In a way, Chicago-based photographer Jason Lazarus takes on the role of a sin eater. Through his project, Too Hard to Keep, Lazarus collects the reminders of pain, sorrow, shame, and a universe of other emotions and in doing so, alleviates the suffering of their former owners.
Too Hard to Keep is an archive of objects — photographic prints, books, digital prints received via text message or on discs — that were donated on the premise that the images are too hard to look at, yet too important to discard. Since its inception in 2010, Lazarus has received well over 3,000 objects, and the collection continues to grow with donations from as far away as Europe and South America.
Three years before its debut on the west coast, SF Camerawork established a drop box at the gallery in which people could deposit their own images. Some of those images were chosen for exhibition, though it is unknown which objects originated locally, and that is by design. Lazarus guarantees the anonymity of the donors, agreeing to take in the objects, but not requiring an explanation of the image, the context in which it was taken, or the difficult memories it embodies. Donors can also request that the images not be exhibited, or be exhibited face down.