The Sustainable Darkroom have just released re·source, a 200 page book that features a collection of recipes, experiments and essays from 44 artists and practitioners from around the world who utilise sustainable photographic methods within their work. We talked to founder Hannah Fletcher and co-director Edd Carr about this growing community who use natural resources like plants, rabbit droppings and household waste to extract naturally occurring substances to process and develop imagery.
Hi Edd and Hannah, please tell us about yourselves briefly?
HF: Hi, I’m an artist split between London and living nomadically in my van. I’m the founder of The Sustainable Darkroom and also Co-director of London Alternative Photography Collective. My work primarily uses cameraless photographic processes, with an acute awareness and sensitivity to the materials and environmental impacts. Considering the many intricate relationships between photographic and not-so photographic materials. Intertwining organic matter such as soils, algae, mushrooms and roots into photographic mediums and surfaces. I question the life cycle and value of materials by incorporating waste from studios and workshops back into the system of making. Working in an investigative, ritualistic and environmentally conscious manner.
EC: I’m an artist and photographic researcher from North Yorkshire, UK. My own practice adapts low-toxic photographic processes into moving image works, thematically concerned with an emotional understanding of the ecological crisis. Within the Sustainable Darkroom, I run our facility and photographic garden in Leeds, as well as conducting and writing research on alternative systems for photographic production.
Explain to us a bit about sustainable photography and what it means to you and the community?
HF: Sustainable is such a tricky word, and we are very conscious of having it as part of our name. It gets thrown around and mischaracterised so often, that I just want to take a minute to make it clear that currently it is near impossible to have a sustainable photography practice in present day society. But what we, at the Sustainable Darkroom, work towards is something better than the current landscape. Something less-toxic, less-wasteful, less-consumptive and less-extractive. We have defined what the word sustainable means to us in our Manifesto, which you can read over on our solar-powered website.
EC: Beyond the material fixes to photographic practice - the Sustainable Darkroom prioritises an intersectional understanding of photography. Transforming our use of materials not only means creating plant-based developers or reclaiming silver, but understanding the complex political, social, and of course ecological entanglements that make photography possible.
For example, our other co-director Alice Cazenave is researching silver in analogue photography for her PhD at Goldsmith’s University. This means unearthing the realities of silver extraction, and the brutal colonial histories that accompany it, with the displacement and disenfranchisement of indigenous peoples that still lingers today - all to produce analogue film. So Sustainable Darkroom practice is about not only transforming the way photographers create, but also the way they think; photography is no longer an isolated action, but a web of ever-shifting relationships with the wider world. Our latest book, re·source, focuses a lot on this idea, alongside the usual recipes and material experiments.
A lot of this community use alternative and sustainable photography methods to create what could be considered more of an art than straight photography. Do you think this is something we will be seeing more in the future?
EC: Absolutely. I think one of the main failings of mainstream photography is its unwillingness to recognise that we live in a time of severe ecological crisis. This is made even more relevant by the fact that analogue photography has seen a surge in popularity with younger generations - who also tend to be the most aware in demanding systemic change to address the crisis.
HF: Yes, I very much agree. Traditionally, we have been taught that making art (and photography) has no boundaries, nothing should get in its way. Processes and the way darkrooms operated were never really questioned, it was just the way things were done. But in the last couple of years we have seen a huge shift in thinking, with record numbers of students addressing these issues in their thesis’ and final projects.
EC: Much like the move towards plant-based diets, many are looking at their own photographic practice and searching for alternatives. In this climate, the Sustainable Darkroom hopes to exist as an alternative framework to mainstream production, where photographers can learn, experiment, produce and ultimately exist divorced from the toxic legacies of this mainstream.
HF: I also think these processes have a grounding and a material satisfaction to them that you don’t get so much with straight photography. Like the way we are able to connect on a deeper level to the earth when we have our hands in the soil, I think we are also able to connect on a deeper level with photography when we work with our hands, physically making or unpicking the materials that make it.
Tell us about the book you have released and some of the artists/photographers involved.
HF & EC: The collection includes core aspects of Sustainable Darkroom practice such as making your own low-toxic photographic chemistry from locally-sourced plants - including recipes for developer from rabbit droppings, as well as repurposing household food waste into chemistry, and creating fixative from salt. Beyond recipes, re·source includes long-term investigations from artists such as Melanie King, and their journey of transforming photographic waste into wearable silver jewellery, traversing the interstellar along the way. Other highlights include a paper on the construction of a darkroom garden by Svea Josephy and Vanessa Cowling for their students at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and the colonial entanglements that were unearthed as a result of their research.
This awareness of the social and political entanglements within photographic production is core to many of the works. As mentioned earlier, Sustainable Darkroom co-director Alice Cazenave examines the material legacies of silver in photographic production and the histories of colonial extraction and exploitation that have made photography possible. Similarly, Rosalba Breazeale’s essay champions Indigenous knowledge through her use of culturally-significant plants in her sustainable printing practice, in an effort to decolonise the history of her region.
What can people do around the world to keep their photography as sustainable as possible?
HF: Think about what is around you and your particular environment. If you see a recipe for a plant based developer, think about how you can adapt it to work with the plants or waste materials that you have where you are. A process or method of waste management that is very successful in South America, will probably not work so well in Scandinavia. So, essentially, work in a way that is relevant to wherever you are.
EC: I’d say the first step is understanding the material networks that make photography possible. So in essence, being aware that the roll of film in your point and shoot doesn’t appear from thin air, but has a material past, present, and future - all of which is made possible by various living and non-living beings across the Earth. Reminding yourself of this when working leads to a more mindful practice that can be applied to all elements of photography. Or alternatively, you can grab a copy of re·source!
Are you interested in learning more about sustainable photography practices? Order your copy of the book re·source from the London Alternative Photography Collective.