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Document Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program


Year Degree Awarded


Month Degree Awarded


First Advisor

Carolyn Anderson

Second Advisor

Emily West

Third Advisor

Jackie Urla

Subject Categories

Digital Humanities | Photography


Personal photographs become separated from their original owners in a number of ways, due to time or tragedy, sometimes ending up in strangers’ hands. Dealers, collectors, curators, bloggers, scholars, and families actively seek what are frequently called “orphaned,” “abandoned,” or “found” photos and present them to the public in multiple formats. This dissertation offers an analysis of the practices and perceptions that surround these presentations, and it argues for use of a more inclusive term (“lost-and-found”) to describe personal photos that are connected to both finders and losers.

Data were collected in three primary ways: (1) examination of the current contexts in which “lost” photos appear (e.g. books, websites, newspapers), (2) interviews with collectors of “lost” photos, and (3) the project’s website, designed to collect anecdotes from those affected by “lost” photos.

Dominating this field of study are the perspectives of those who find personal photographs. The choices photo-finders make regarding the presentation and interpretation of photographs differ in clear ways, enabling me to group their practices within five categories which are evident across all formats examined in this study: Museum Curator, Archivist/Preservationist, Essayist/Editor, Reuniter, and Dealer. What unites practitioners across these discrete categories is the act of compiling and displaying “lost” photos within public archives, where new presentations of old photos invite myriad interpretations, conversations, and possibilities.

Since the perspectives of those who have lost personal photographs have been largely missing from this field of study, I created tools to capture the viewpoints of photo “losers.” The project’s website,, provided a space in which contributors shared stories of personal photos they had lost, challenging notions of finder-collectors who often see themselves as the sole appreciators of “lost” photos’ true value.

Most importantly, this project gave a literal voice to photo-losers through an audio component—a voicemail system which recorded contributors’ stories of lost personal photographs. This aural element offers a new medium for the examination of the visual, and it provides an emotional depth which, it is hoped, may inspire an enlargement of lost-and-found photography practices to accommodate the perspectives of both finders and losers.