Sustainability vs. Photography

An analog image of a woman draging a sledge with her son through the snow in Berlin.

At first glance, sustainability and photography don’t seem to go against each other. What could be detrimental to the environment if you took an image? Let’s think about it, shall we? 

The first thing that comes to mind are the tools. Cameras and film needs to be produced and developed — with chemicals that have traditionally not been very kind to the environment. I would argue, though, that the behavior of photographers is arguably more important to look at. All the traveling to far-off places and the emissions from it are supercharged by promoting these places and attracting ever more people to go travel, which includes flying and driving for the most part. In short, I think there is a responsibility as photographers to consume less ourselves, and be aware of what we project into the world, because we do tend to have an amplified voice. 

What does that mean for my photography personally? Apart from using the most sustainable chemicals one can buy and repairing and recycling my gear whenever possible, it’s the choice of subject. Looking at our everyday lives and the world we live in, my visual interpretation is a tender and positive look at our closest surroundings, without the need for travel. If that small radius foreshadows our future or if it really is just a personal preference remains to be seen. 

Analog vs. Generative AI

The rediscovery of analog photography in the last few years is surely not an answer to the rise of artificial artworks by generative AI, but this rise might make working with analog materials more relevant. The rediscovery of analog processes is more likely an answer to the ubiquity of digital images. With the rise of very capable and affordable SLRs ten years ago and later pushing those qualities to the smartphone, the digital image became a truly global mass product—hence the new terminology “content” for what we used to call photography as an applied art. Going back to analog, not for the quality of an image (which is rationally seen worse) nor the sake of being conservative (“that’s how we always did it”), but for the slow and more deliberate nature of taking an image and the added surprise of how the final image will look—which inevitably comes with the chemical process—may gain another argument: The paper trail. For sure, there will be a discussion in the future of this journal about what role trust plays in art, but having a clear chemical paper trail to ones images might be a boon for artists like me in the long run.

Art vs. Applied Art

Photography lives in two different worlds. One is the world of fine arts, where photography took place around 100 years ago, with renowned artists, exhibitions and sky-high prices on the art market. The other is the world of applied arts, where reportage meets portraiture meets commercial photography. But where is the line between the two? Is photography general art with an applied side, or is it applied art that occasionally veers into the fine arts? Looking at the numbers of photographers working on the commercial side, the latter seems to be the case. I would offer a third option: Abandon the tag of “applied arts” altogether. It does not help the disciplines it spans: Architecture, design, typography, photography and others are their own distinct fields. Using “Something-art” as a way of trying to be more artsy, valuable or relevant does not bring the glory we hope it does. It’s in the words: “Something-art” will always be more something than art. To fully understand Photography or any other creative field, we need to accept the full breath of the different dimensions they may have—be they artistic, social or commercial.