Did you know that darkroom chemicals are incredibly bad for the environment?
The chemicals commonly used in traditional film photography slide processing can have significant negative impacts on the environment due to their composition and improper disposal.
These chemicals contain toxic substances like silver, selenium, cadmium, lead, and organic compounds, which can harm both humans and the environment. Exposure to these chemicals can result in respiratory problems, skin irritation, organ damage, or cancer. Improper disposal of these chemicals can lead to water pollution, contaminating water sources and disrupting aquatic ecosystems.
Soil contamination can also occur when chemicals seep into the soil, affecting plant growth and potentially posing risks to human health through the food chain.
Darkroom chemicals also release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air, contributing to air pollution and causing illnesses with prolonged exposure.
Furthermore, the use of silver in darkroom film processing contributes to resource depletion, including deforestation, habitat destruction, and the release of toxic byproducts.
And yet, film photography has had an almighty resurgence in popularity in recent years. So, how do we mitigate the environmental impact of darkroom chemicals on the planet instead of switching to digital (which has its own set of environmental impacts)?
Enter the Sustainable Darkroom
Formed in 2019, the Sustainable Darkroom is an artist-led, independent organisation whose goals are to explore sustainability within the world of film photography and develop a response to the global ecological crisis.
Their initiative to tackle environmental issues within analogue photography has met waves of artists and scientists who are experimenting with plant-based development methods including the use of natural resources like algae, rabbit droppings and household waste to extract naturally occurring substances to process and develop imagery.
They hope to expand collective knowledge and enable others to learn from and build upon the research by artists and researchers who are carrying out similar investigations. As well as promote accessibility by seeking funding to subsidise educational workshops and utilising low-cost or freely available materials.
Chlorophyll print work by Hannah Fletcher
Speaking with founder, Hannah Fletcher, we wanted to dive a little deeper into the motivation to launch this global project.
Hannah discussed the development of alternative methods and materials in sustainable photography. For example, photographers have been experimenting with a technique called Caffenol, which involves using instant coffee as a developer for film. This method has gained a following, with some photographers preferring the results it produces over conventional developers.
Taking a step further, researchers recently explored the chemical composition of instant coffee and identified a key component called Caffeic acid, which is present in all plants. This discovery has led to the exploration of using locally available or waste materials to extract phenols, including Caffeic acid, as a substitute for instant coffee in the development process. This has expanded to other areas of the analogue process such as printing using chickpea water (aquafaba) in replace of the egg or making a CMYK filter out of plant pigments that an individual has grown themselves.
Hannah Fletcher’s studio, image by Jack Johnstone
Hannah explained to me that the demand for workshops has been growing organically without much promotion, which is fortunate considering the organisation’s limited resources. These workshops are vital for the progression of the organisation as a whole and it’s been important to provide different avenues for people to access information: recipes and self-exploration, community, interacting with others and receiving advice from experts on Patreon, and in-person workshops for those seeking specific techniques.
By diversifying the options available, Hannah hopes to make the information and research accessible to people with varying skill levels, locations, and needs. Ultimately, her goal is to empower individuals in their photographic journey, providing them with the resources and support they need to thrive in their chosen path.
Hannah Fletcher’s studio, image by Jack Johnstone
When asking about what’s next for the Sustainable Darkroom, it’s clear they have great plans for the future.
First of all, they aim to transition into a charity which will help them gain access to additional funding opportunities. Currently, limited funding has hindered their ability to maintain residencies and provide all the learning they wish to share. Their goal is to achieve financial stability, allowing them to guarantee the continuation of research residencies and other initiatives.
In the meantime, they are focusing on teaching workshops that combine theory and practical aspects. A recent series called the "slow photography series" addresses concerns about the superficial fixation on visual aesthetics and environmental trends. By incorporating theory into the workshops, they aim to engage participants critically and promote a deeper understanding of their processes.
They are committed to avoiding greenwashing and ensuring their actions align with their manifesto and values. This sometimes presents challenges when collaborating with organisations with a questionable history or funding sources. The organisation carefully considers their partnerships and weighs the importance of aligning with its values against potential benefits for its reputation.
Additionally, the Sustainable Darkroom has collaborated with notable institutions such as the National Trust and various gardens. They have also partnered with the V&A (Victoria and Albert Museum) for events, showcasing their broad reach and engagement with prominent entities. Their connections extend internationally, as they have established relationships with organizations in America. All of which highlights the organisation's ability to attract significant partners and broaden its impact on a global scale.
Leeds workshop week, 2022, image by Joe Singleton
How can you get involved?
Without a physical location, the Sustainable Darkroom sets up an annual workshop week in a different city each year. This actually serves a great purpose, allowing the Sustainable Darkroom’s manifesto to be shared further around the UK.
Last year’s workshop week was in Leeds and this year, they’re taking it to Brighton; at Intrepid Studios. They’ll be five days of workshops and talks, as well as some social events for anyone who's doing the workshop to meet up after the sessions for a drink and a chat.
This year’s events will be held from:
28th August - 1st September 2023
11 Chapel Mews,
Hove, BN3 1AR
All information for the workshops this year can be found here: Brighton Workshop week
As mentioned earlier, you can also get involved on their Patreon page where you can become a member, get heads up on upcoming workshops and talks, and Patron-only updates on new additions to the library and differing levels of community exclusives.
What is sustainable darkroom processing?
Sustainable darkroom processing refers to the practice of developing photographic film and prints using environmentally friendly and resource-efficient methods. It involves using non-toxic chemicals, conserving water and energy, and reducing waste to minimise the environmental impact of traditional darkroom processes.
What are some eco-friendly alternatives to traditional darkroom chemicals?
There are several eco-friendly alternatives available for darkroom chemicals. Some common substitutes include plant-based developers, such as coffee or tea, which can be used for developing black and white film. Another option is using non-toxic developers like ascorbic acid or borax.
How can I conserve water during darkroom processing?
There are several methods to conserve water during darkroom processing such as reusing water instead of using fresh water for each step such as rinsing or diluting chemicals. Be mindful of your water use when rinsing prints or film, or opt for waterless techniques like lith printing or cyanotype.
How can I reduce energy consumption in the darkroom?
Reducing energy consumption in the darkroom can be as easy as switching to energy-efficient bulbs, using natural light whenever possible or optimising your equipment usage e.g. turning off equipment when not in use, and consider using energy-saving settings on devices like enlargers or dryers.
What can I do with the waste generated during darkroom processing?
Proper waste management is essential in sustainable darkroom processing. Be sure to check with your local recycling facilities to see if they accept certain darkroom materials like plastic containers or empty chemical bottles. Dispose of any hazardous chemicals or substances properly according to local regulations - you can contact your local waste management authority for guidance. Finally, be mindful and minimise waste by accurately measuring chemicals and reusing containers where possible.
About the Author
Leo White has been a member of the Wex Photo Video team since 2018, working in a variety of roles ranging from the contact centre to the product setup team. With both a photography BA and MA, Leo has a wealth of knowledge he's ready to share. See more of his writing on Leo's author page.