There’s a photo of me, tan and lean in front of the Château d’Azay-le-Rideau, my dark curls and long orange dress blowing wildly. My backpack is slung over one shoulder and my right wrist is ringed in “Ciao Bella” bracelets, a discotheque admittance stamp fading just above. I squint my eyes—not because of the sun or the camera’s flash, but because everything is so bright and beautiful and exciting that this moment makes every part of my face smile.
I often reflect on this image and that halcyon day, one of many from a college trip across Europe. But sadly, I cannot gaze at it directly: The photo itself is gone, the camera holding it lost somewhere on a train.
In the years since that fateful mistake, I’ve distracted myself by surfing the islands of misplaced tech on the internet, especially forums for lost and found digital cameras. Visiting these sites is like finding a time capsule or a visual diary, particularly of the half-decade between 2005 and 2010. Good Samaritans log on and upload photos from Coolpix or similar cameras they find on bus seats or park benches around the world, hoping to reunite them with their owners. The images are addictive—virtual flipbooks of private moments between friends, families, and lovers. Backdrops range from ill-lit hotel rooms and Balinese waterfalls to Sahara dunes and snow-capped summits. Some look like elopements or first-time trips for nervous couples; others look like tearful reunions or contemplative solo journeys.
These albums and the stories behind them have it all: drama, love, loss, adventure, mystery, and sometimes a happy ending. But then, so does a Shonda Rhimes series, so what makes me come back to binge-watch the long-lost photos of strangers over and over again?
It started, unsurprisingly, when I lost my own digital camera—along with that stunning aforementioned photo of me—while studying abroad in the summer of 2008. You see, back in the 2000s, Canons and Nikons roamed the Earth as a completely separate species from cellphones, before evolving into the all-in-one hybrids most of us carry around today. Back then, the only thing clouds stored was rain, and memories were limited to space on SD cards and the strength of the Wi-Fi in cybercafes.
If you were like me at 21, you started off uploading pictures every night from your hostel to Facebook to let your mom know you were alive. But, after a few months, you were reckless. You smized for pics in front of graffiti in a language you couldn’t read. You wore scarves in July. You ate half a cannabis space cake and thought you were half-dead. And you, like me, definitely got lax about backing up your digicam on the internet for future scrapbooking.
By August of that summer, I thought my Nikon and I were invincible. I was a millennial without a cause in my sick 9-euro pleather jacket from H&M, daring the future to try to stop me from changing the world after graduation. Nothing could ruin this pivotal sojourn of growth and independence for me—nothing. Until I lost my camera and most of my photos on a Eurail from Amsterdam to Bruges and spent the rest of the trip ugly-crying, telling my friends I was over it, and then crying some more.
Back stateside, I was still not over it. But the lost camera forums I quickly discovered offered a glimmer of hope. I provided a description of the missing camera and the types of photos it held: me in that sherbet-colored dress avec le chateau, me jumping off a pier in Naples, and me and my BFF drenched in the red lights of various naughty districts.
I checked back daily to see if there were any responses, sometimes refreshing the page over and over again like a gambler at a slot machine until my eyes burned. It was a welcome distraction from reality, a break from final exams and job interviews and learning how not to burn things when “cooking” for myself. As adult ennui settled over me, I was desperate for images of my younger, naïve self.
Eventually, though, I became even more enamored with the photos of others. Canon PowerShots and Casio models told the haunting, unfinished stories of strangers: a proud grandfather beaming in a worn La-Z-Boy just before Thanksgiving in South Dakota circa 2007, a chic couple (secret lovers?) hidden behind designer shades at a private Italian villa in 2008, a group of friends dancing in a Berlin club after a football match in 2010. Who were these people and where were they now? Were they still friends? Still in love? Still alive?
These lost-and-found bins were captivating reminders that there was still wonder in the world and mysteries to be solved and perhaps even satisfying endings to look forward to. One of my favorite success stories is about a guy named George who lost his camera at Mardi Gras in New Orleans. A blogger named Mathew Preprost posted photos from a found camera, and what do you know, a user from Denmark recognized his ol’ buddy George.
By 2016, I was turning 30 and the iPhone was turning digital cameras into dinosaurs. Social media grew to include a host of other platforms alongside Facebook like Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. I could share and save photos anywhere, instantly—except for a few dead spots on my Manhattan commute. And soon those would be connected too.
The practical need for my favorite lost-and-found sites dwindled, and only a few exist today. New uploads aren’t as frequent, though as recently as last summer someone found a memory card with a 2008 kayaking trip, and another user stumbled upon a camera with quaint island wedding photos circa 2000. But while new posts are exciting, they aren’t what keep me coming back between Zoom calls and Nespresso breaks. I visit these sites to revel in a sweet spot in time: the precipice of my adulthood and the part of the Digital Age where I could still be blissfully lost and not yet found. Oh, to be 21 again, selfie-stick-less—without a geotagged care in the world—with a question mark for a future.
Agh, I know I said I was over finding my photos! But if you ever click across a girl in a flowy orange dress with a chateau behind her and the whole world unfolding out in front, hit me up?