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.
At SF Camerawork and for earlier exhibitions in the United States and Europe, the installation is minimal, deviating smartly from the familiar line up of framed photographs usually encountered when walking through a gallery or museum. Instead, the photos of all sizes are arrayed at an imprecise rhythm throughout the compact space, collecting in the far corner to the right of the main desk. Save a brief introductory statement, there is no text that accompanies the images. For some visitors, the absence of explanation could be frustrating, leading one to wonder how we are to relate to these images. For others, the absence of text fuels the fire of imagination.
Walking through the gallery, the experience isn't unlike looking at someone's photo album. There are family portraits, some so old as to be dated by clothing, hairstyles, and the chemical color shift of the emulsion; smiling babies in bathtubs, hormone-addled teenagers, and glamor shots from the local mall, all exhibited with images of landscapes free of people. Without knowing the details of these images, these surrendered memories, the photographs could be unremarkable and banal. But, presented within the context of Lazarus' project, the images encourage viewers to wonder about the who, and the where, and the why that makes these images so painful to look upon.
Too Hard to Keep is a small, compelling project produced at a time when technology and social media collide to create a forum in which every detail about our lives can be shared -- if we so choose. Instead, Jason Lazarus -- photographer, archivist, confessor -- offers a space in which viewers are encouraged to use their imagination when engaged in the act of looking and to consider the photograph, perhaps as a dying medium, as a touchstone for memory and emotion.
Too Hard to Keep runs through March 16, 2013 at SF Camerawork. For more information, visit sfcamerawork.org.