Lost and found: Moscow’s David Harlan tells stories through deserted items

click to enlarge Unpaired Project by David Harlan
Unpaired Project by David Harlan

Single, abandoned gloves are nothing new to Moscow’s cold weather sidewalks.

But it wasn’t until last winter that resident David Harlan started noticing them. And then, photographing them. And then, writing about them. The result is a blog-style online collection of photos and corresponding short fictional stories called “Unpaired.”

Harlan encounters these lost items because he does a lot of walking -- around two or three hours a day. It’s a habit he started several years ago.

“When I came to Moscow 15 years ago, I was -- big,” Harlan said.

click to enlarge David Harlan
David Harlan

Harlan weighed 280 pounds. And after a couple years in Moscow, just before his 39th birthday in 2006, he decided he was done with that extra weight. He changed his diet and started walking. He lost 100 pounds in the process but his exercise habits have stayed.

“Since 2007, I’ve walked every day. It’s my primary source of transportation,” Harlan said.

Since he started tracking the distance, he found it comes out to about 10 miles a day or 3,500 miles a year. Harlan walks in every kind of weather and, as a photographer, always carries his camera with him in his backpack.

Last winter, Harlan began to notice dropped items -- gloves, mostly -- on his walking routes. A child’s blue glove kept catching his attention and he began to wonder -- what was the story behind that glove? Who was its owner? How did it get there?

Then he began to wonder what might come out of noticing these abandoned items, taking photographs of them “as is” and using them as a prompt for a piece of fiction. That’s how “Unpaired” was born.

Though the story is set in Moscow, Harlan’s characters and their stories are made up. The stories are anchored by the time and the location where the item was found. Each piece is a stand-alone short story, but over time Harlan found he had some recurring characters that are forming an overarching narrative. Harlan appears in every story as the “lanky man” who is seen photographing the item or walking by.  

click to enlarge Unpaired Project by David Harlan - DAVID HARLAN
David Harlan
Unpaired Project by David Harlan

Harlan started taking pictures for the project at end of 2017 and started writing in January 2018. His goal has been to write one piece a week, though he’s a little behind. Harlan describes the stories as “solid drafts” -- they have mistakes and he experiments with writing styles.

“I’m just really enjoying telling new stories with all of the canvas of this town that I love so much, that has given so much to me,” Harlan said. “I want people to see how special this town can be.”

He enjoys creating characters and weaving in beloved locations like the Moscow Co-op or One World Cafe. He also likes being able to portray the kindness that he’s observed around town. All together, he believes the 52 stories have the potential to be “a very intimate portrait of Moscow.”

Harlan knows that at least some people are reading the stories. He’ll often get tips from friends on where to find some mismatched item that they’ve discovered, in case he wants to take a photo and use it as a prompt.

“People always ask, are you a photographer or a writer or a theater artist” said Harlan, who is the founder of Moscow Art Theater (Too). “And what I am as an artist is a storyteller. And I tell my story with whatever tools I have on hand.”

click to enlarge Unpaired Project by David Harlan - DAVID HARLAN
David Harlan
Unpaired Project by David Harlan

Read "Unpaired" here online.

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