Photography, even—or especially—when it deals with environmental issues, leaves a greater ecological footprint than we might think. Every technique comes with its own set of problems: while digital photography implies built-in obsolescence, silver-based film entails toxic waste. As we confront a climate crisis, is there such a thing as eco-friendly photography? Three photographers address the question.
Not a day goes by that our attention is not drawn to climate change, ocean pollution, or our own carbon footprint. If you feel eco-anxious about it, so are we! What about photographers? “When you start to really think about the subject it makes your head spin!”, admits Nicolas Bigot, a photographer in Brittany. Whatever type of photography one practices, whether digital or analog, ecological sensibility aside, the question of photography’s impact on the environment arises. “When you think of it in terms of one individual, it does not seem like much, but then consider the number of photographers on the planet and it’s no trifling matter,” observes the Breton artist.
Digital or analog: the plague or cholera?
The realization is mind-boggling and it’s enough to turn any image-hunter into a collapsologist. Admittedly, avid digital photographers produce less waste. However, manufacturing a digital camera requires a lot of energy, and involves extracting and refining rare heavy metals. Gold, platinum, copper, aluminum, and lead go into various parts of the camera, while nickel-cadmium and lithium-ion power the batteries.
These resources are not only being depleted, they are also end up polluting soil and water. This is compounded by an ethical issue, namely unacceptable working conditions in the mines and factories that manufacture camera parts.
But that’s not all. Digital cameras quickly become obsolete—it is estimated that an SLR has an average lifespan of barely five years. In fact, it is usually cheaper to buy a new camera than to have the old one fixed. Not to mention the expenditure involved in charging and replacing batteries or memory cards...
Even worse, the absence of film encourages nonstop shooting, which means saving endless images. Here comes in the thorny issue of data storage: once photos have been saved in the cloud, uploaded to a website, or posted on social networks, they actually reside in data hubs. Data hubs consume a lot of energy, usually fossil fuels, specifically to stay cool. Data hubs have been shown to be responsible for 25% of technology-generated greenhouse gas emissions.
This is why Stéphanie Davilma, a photographer based in the south of France, prefers to work with film. “I use film rather than digital. My cameras are often about fifty years old and I don’t try to keep up with the technology [. . .]. And yet there is no denying that analog film generates pollution, as does the developing process.”
Indeed, while traditional cameras are durable and age well, many aspects of analog photography involve pollutants, namely the chemicals and materials needed to manufacture and develop film. Film, whether color or black and white, is made of plastic and silver halide. Developing it necessitates the use of chemical developers and fixers, which constitute toxic waste and end up in the sewage or ground water—or in garbage if one has scruples, but it’s heavy waste all the same.
Environmental photography isn’t always green
Photographs that warn us about the ravages of industrial pollution and make us aware of ecological disasters paradoxically leave a significant carbon footprint.
Laurent Teisseire splits his life between Paris, where he photographs artists, actors, and writers for the press, and Burgundy countryside, where he is a beekeeper. Particularly concerned about protecting nature, he also uses photography to advocate the practice of biodynamic beekeeping. When asked what advice he would give to photographers seeking to reduce their environmental impact, he said: “There is a piece of advice I would like to give to those who are fond of lecturing others, like Yann Arthus Bertrand… I think you can take aerial photos other than from a helicopter.”
Traveling across the world, using oversized equipment or helicopters, and disrupting already fragile ecosystems: environmental photography purports to defend a cause even as it precipitates environmental collapse. While photography aims to be a public service, its ecological footprint is problematic. “Eco-friendly practices must not be fragmented: you can’t be a virtuous ecologist in your private life and a big polluter in public,” says the beekeeper-photographer.
Is eco-friendly photography possible?
“Just like we pay attention to these things in our daily life, it is possible to include such steps in photographic activities,” suggests Nicolas Bigot. If this small dose of eco-anxiety doesn’t make you want to run for the hills and trade in your digital equipment for analog film that you will never develop, here are a few tips on environmentally responsible photography.
Choose your camera and photo lab carefully and recycle responsibly
To this day it’s hard to find brands that use recycled materials and ensure the longevity of their digital cameras. However, we should be seeing some positive trend in this direction, at least in France! On January 30, the Senate unanimously adopted an anti-waste bill promoting circular economy. Among other things, it aims to fight built-in obsolescence in the digital sector by applying a reparability and durability index and by promoting the use of spare parts.
The law will go into effect within a few years. In the meantime, it is advisable that users limit energy consumption, help cut down on raw materials, and generate less waste by acquiring second-hand or refurbished equipment. Reconditioned items are put back on the market after being cleaned, overhauled, and tested. They tend to be more expensive than second-hand products, but they are more efficient and come with warranty.
Major retailers encourage recycling by collecting used appliances. They are committed to extracting hazardous substances from each appliance, processing them, and recycling most other materials into secondary raw materials. However, these processes take place behind the scenes and are difficult to track. In any case, it is necessary to be proactive and limit digital waste.
As far as gelatin-silver film is concerned, you can be more demanding when it comes to your photo lab. As Stéphanie Davilma has it: “I don’t develop my own film, I leave it to a professional who can dispose of the chemicals following strict rules, and even recycle certain components.” Some companies are committed to more ecological practices and to upholding eco-responsible values through the use of rainwater, less toxic developers, and recycled paper and through waste management. For example, some residue of photo processing can be used to produce construction grit.
In recent years, alternative developing methods have become increasingly more common. Caffenol is the best-known process, which uses coffee, vitamin C, and soda crystals to develop film.
Sometimes, it is enough to simply limit the number of prints. “I scan my negatives to avoid superfluous prints and, generally speaking, the slowness of the film process forces me to produce fewer images and produce them in a more thoughtful manner. The ecological impact is not nonexistent, but it is kept within reason, as far as possible.”
Choose your subjects carefully and stay local
Easier said than done; however, limiting one’s travel really helps to reduce a photographer’s environmental impact: “Today I’m going to focus on stories about ecology in my region, on the new national park that just opened, for example, rather than doing a story halfway around the world. I prefer local stories.” Laurent Teisseire has the opportunity not only to work where he lives, but also to cover environmental topics close to his heart, and he allows himself the option of turning down clients whose ethics he doesn’t share: “I also try to choose my clients [. . .]. I don’t think I’d want to work for the FNSEA (National Federation of Farmers’ Unions) again.”
This is not a viable option for everyone, but there is always some room for maneuver, as Stéphanie Davilma points out: “I try to do my work locally. It’s not always easy, not being based in Paris, but I think it makes more sense to make documentaries, reports, or even editorials locally rather than constantly moving around. Sometimes it is necessary to travel for specific topics, but I try not to do it if I think it’s excessive.”
Leave nature alone, unless you’re cleaning up
This is a basic rule of thumb, and it can also have a positive impact on nature photography, by balancing out any travel, for example. “When I go to an outdoor shoot, I always bring a reusable bag to pick up any rubbish I find on my way. Especially when shooting by the sea! I try to leave as small a footprint as possible when photographing nature. I always adapt to the setting as I find it: I’m not going to cut branches that get in the way of my framing,” concludes Nicolas Bigot.
What we tend to think of as “petty gestures” can make all the difference from an environmental standpoint. Perhaps we can also incorporate them into our creative process!
By Charlotte Jean