What would you say if we were to tell you that there's a lab out there that processes films for free? No hidden charges, no gimmicks, no nothing. Just free film processing. That's the Free Film Lab for you, a community project launched by photographer James Leder. We know, we had the same reaction as you have right now - puzzled, surprised, and possibly with a furrowed brow and a look of suspicion. But trust us, this is all legit.
James has been working hard on Free Film Lab on top of many other things and like other passion projects out there, the aim is to make things better for people all around, specifically those in our little film photography community. Now, people don't have to choose between sharing their craft and paying for bills. They can do both with the help of the Free Film Lab. Learn more about James and his beautiful gift to the analogue community in this interview.
Hi, James and welcome to the Magazine! Please introduce yourself to our readers.
I’m James – I was born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska. Right now I juggle my time between working as a cabinet maker, making art with my growing collection of film cameras, building a house, and running a free film developing service.
We love the idea of your free film project. What's the story behind it?
You always hear people griping about lab fees in the photography community. People spend hundreds of dollars getting batches of film scanned. At $10-15/roll just for developing and another $10-25/roll for high-res scans, it quickly becomes a wealthy person's hobby. Since I already develop a lot of film for my friends, the idea to offer it to other small artists came pretty naturally. Also the fact that there isn’t a single film lab in Alaska. The closest film lab for C-41 developing is in California! I’d have to wait a month to see my photos.
What do you aim to accomplish?
My dream is to undercut big film and put all for-profit film labs out of business. Once that happens I can jack up the price of developing to hundreds of dollars per roll and finally build an empire from the massive influx of revenue.
Hah! Jokes aside I just want to see the art people would make if they didn’t have to choose between paying rent and making photographs. If a few people are able to make memories they wouldn’t have without this service, it’s a success.
How many people have signed up for it so far?
When I first posted about it on twitter I got an overwhelming number of DM’s – over 100 – but so far about 30 people have confirmed they’ll be mailing in film to be developed. I had to cap it around 20 orders per month right now because I’m funding most of it out of pocket, but hopefully as word gets around more donations will come in and I can start ramping up production a bit
It's really a nice and generous thing to do. What made you want to develop film for other people?
Art is better when it’s created in community, so this project is an effort to build a community of support within film photography. We’re surrounded by competition and struggle – for resources, attention, likes, success, and this is meant to be a break from all that. Like, really folks, it’s FREE.
I used to volunteer for an organization in Washington called Community to Community and they would talk a lot about the need for a ‘solidarity economy,’ where relationships are less transactional and more based on mutual support. I’d say the idea was influenced by that line of thinking.
What are your plans for this film developing project?
I’d love to see the Free Film Lab grow into something bigger than just me developing and scanning for people in my limited free time. I know there are thousands of film photographers out there who self-process, and I’d love to start connecting that network of people who could contribute to the project. That’s a long term goal, but for now I’m just working with a friend on finishing a website and getting non-profit status so the lab can start running off community donations.
We also took a peek at your work. You have a lot of nice images on your site! How long have you been taking photographs?
Thanks! I started shooting with a pinhole camera I made in high school photography class about ten years ago. Though I didn’t really start taking it seriously until about 2014 when I went to school for visual journalism in Washington. My photography teacher there was a real hard ass, I remember him making people cry on multiple occasions. If he didn’t like an image he’d let you know exactly why, and even if it was a little harsh sometimes I benefited hugely from that kind of no-punches-pulled critique.
I took what I learned there and applied it to documentary style shooting for social movements I was involved with, mostly migrant farm worker strikes and some indigenous sovereignty struggles. At some point, I got really burnt out on the endless hours of editing digital photos and sold my set up. Since then I’ve been making photos on old analogue cameras more at my own speed. I find a lot of my creative inspo in the otherworldly scale of arctic landscapes and the feelings of alienation that come with living in the far north.
What made you decide to pick up the camera and shoot?
One summer I was visiting home and my dad gave me his old Nikon FE2 film camera that he used to travel all over Alaska in his bush plane with. Something about shooting on a camera with a legacy like that inspired me to make my own memories with it.
What's your favorite place you've gone to?
The Brooks Range in northern Alaska. Words can’t do that place justice, I’ll just say it’s a magical place and leave it at that.
Please invite people to your upcoming projects.
I want to experiment with some super long exposures during the darkest months of the arctic winter this year. Because it’s so dark up here, I think I could pull off a month-long exposure of the moon tracing arcs across the sky. I’ve also been experimenting a ton with multiple exposures in camera and stacking negatives in the scanner to make double exposures. Other than that I’ll just be making photos as usual and trying to hold down the Free Film Lab. I usually share my latest work on Twitter if you want to see what I’m up to.
Any last words for our readers?
I just want to say thank you to the readers for checking out the film lab and my work, and thanks to Lomography for putting this spotlight on it. I hope I get to develop your photos someday!
We would like to thank James for letting us feature his images and share his story on the Magazine. Be updated with his latest photos and developments from the Free Film Lab and follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and his website.