Looking at Pictures of Strangers

I don’t know the people in these photos. I don’t know their story, where they live, what their names are, what makes them happy or sad. All I know for sure is that someone left this stack of photos perched on top of the crosswalk button near the train station. Passing by them every day for three weeks, I can’t help but wonder where they came from and why someone would leave them.

I love a good mystery and I also can’t stand to leave a story unfinished. There is something strange about finding a stranger’s photo on the street. Every time I walk by on my way to work, I see this family staring up into the cold, grey sky. The writer in me can’t help but try to fill in the blanks. To this end, my wild imagination has conjured up three theories.

Maybe they were left their by accident, set down for a moment and casually forgotten. This theory has the benefit of simplicity. After all, we all lose things all the time. I once lost a pair of dress shoes that I had only just been wearing. Still, I don’t like this theory much. It lacks drama.

More intriguingly, maybe they were left deliberately by someone. Maybe they’re looking for the young man in this photo. Perhaps he disappeared and cut all ties with the family. Maybe an old flame is hoping to reconnect, hoping that he’ll find the photos she’s strategically left around the city for him — hoping he’ll call and the reasons they split up will evaporate like the dew that clings to the glossy finish.

Or maybe the young man is dead. In this theory, the neat stack of wallet-size photos is a somber memorial. Maybe they mark the site where he died or perhaps a loved one is leaving copies all over the country in all the places he planned to visit but never got to see. In this case, the photos are like ashes scattered to the wind.

I’ll probably never know who the people are these photos. And maybe it was wrong of me to see them at all; maybe I’ve pried too far into the world of these strangers. But maybe they’re not a message to a loved one or a marker for the dead. Maybe these photographs are a story, told in images, meant to be seen and read and interpreted as the wind lifts away the pages like a flipbook. Maybe a writer left them, looking for an audience.

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Jonny Eberle is an eavesdropper on the human condition; the kind of person who goes to a foreign country and photographs the trash in the street and grafitti on the walls. You can follow his meandering story of Twitter or leave your comments below. Thanks for reading.

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