Whether under the bed, in the back of the closet, or up in the attic, you probably have keepsakes of people you've lost stored away. Keepsakes are literally that: items you keep for the sake of another person. They serve no practical purpose other than to remind you of the person you associate with them, and it's as a result of those personal associations that you can't let them go. So they sit, closed up in cardboard and hidden from view.
Dudley Saunders wants them.
A Los Angeles-based artist and singer-songwriter, Saunders wants people to open up these boxes and share with the world the items inside, whatever they may be -- clothes, toys, jewelry, knickknacks, souvenirs from trips the keepers never took, and any other pieces of evidence that some loved person existed and then died. He wants you to photograph them, and he's collecting the photos at a website, In These Boxes, that offers a chance unburden yourself, if just for a second. "It will be really interesting to see who will be brave enough to share this stuff," said Saunders of this public display of private emotion.
Though Saunders has been collecting them only for a few weeks, the ideas behind it began during a dark period in 1991, in the depths of the AIDS crisis, when two of Saunders' exes died within three months of each other. "I realized that none of the people who remembered us as a couple were alive anymore either," he said. "There were no witnesses that my life had even happened." All Saunders had were the mementoes.
It's both beautiful and tragic how such items retain meaning only for the people who keep them. Once the keepers aren't around, the items lose their sacredness and revert back to just plain old stuff that someone else must either care for or discard. Saunders explains the dynamic using the death of a friend as an example: "His siblings didn't want his stuff. His father took a few things... But there was this film he'd made about this really traumatic event in his life, and now it's sitting in my garage. How can I throw this away? But eventually, if I don't throw it away, I'm going to die and it's just going to be trash to somebody else."
Thus, it's a cycle perpetuated by grief and love. However, "In These Boxes" breaks this chain, at least to an extent, because it offers people a rare chance to publicly, permanently declare an item as having value and then bond together in the attempt to confront that loss. "I want to talk about the common experience of grief -- how we get through it, how we let go of it and how it can bring us together," explained Saunders, who, it should be noted, also works for KCET creating on-air promotional spots. Saunders has been writing and performing his own songs for years, and "In These Boxes" combines his music with the mementos of strangers in public way on February 8, when the submitted images will be incorporated into a multimedia display during his performance at the Eagle Rock Center for the Arts. In fact, that's a key part of his performance: localizing it so that people who submitted their photos can potentially see them when they attend the show.
Submission is simple: If you have a photo you'd like to share, you can either post it to Instagram with the hashtag #InTheseBoxes or email it directly to Saunders. It's up to the submitters to decide what, if anything, they say about the photographed object. "Some are very long. Most on Instagram are pretty quiet," said Saunders, noting that he's interested how region and culture will affect submissions for future shows in New York, New Orleans, Louisville and Washington D.C. Whatever people say, the result will be a story told about people who might not otherwise be celebrated. "These are stories that aren't getting told because they don't fit conventional narratives," Saunders said.
Of course, telling the stories can be painful, but Saunders said he hopes "In These Boxes" offers a unique opportunity to share grief publicly but without standing on a stage and announcing it. (After all, that's Saunders' job at the Eagle Rock performance.) This could be a necessary first step. "A lot of people just don't think they can survive the pain of talking about it," Saunders explained. "They think, 'If I talk about it, it will hurt. If I really touch my grief, I might start crying and I might never stop.' And that's terrifying, but you do hit bottom eventually."
There's a dual symbolism in boxes that hasn't escaped Saunders' notice, and it sums up the project neatly: As Saunders puts it, "A box can be a way you bury something, but it can also be a way you display something and make it special." It's up to you to decide how to view those boxes you have stored away, how you'll meet this opportunity.