#14 EnvironmentIt’s with pleasure that I welcome readers to this issue of Photography+. As the new Editor, it has been very exciting for me to put together this issue on the Environment with writers and artists whose work is urgent, provocative, and timely. Over the coming months, Photography+ will be working on innovative and creative stories that focus on how photography intersects with the everyday. Taking as a basis the crucial political and social issues of our time–climate change, pandemics, global vaccine inequality, workers’ struggles beyond borders, and movements against state violence, for example—we will be asking how photography helps us both understand the world in which we’re living and imagine a better, freer, more just future. Since we are in an era of profound ecological crisis, this issue is devoted to exploring the role of the photographer in documenting and confronting the climate catastrophe. Each writer and artist asks us to think through the relationship between photography and climate change, between the photographer and their environment. Ricardo Reverón Blanco reviews Mandy Barker’s latest series, STILL (FFS), showing us how Barker imbues life into the lifeless bodies of her subjects, the Flesh-Footed Shearwaters of Lord Howe Island. Tshepiso Mabula ka Ndongeni tells us about Umhlabathi, a photography collective in Johannesburg that takes inspiration from soil in order to document racial and class inequality in South Africa. In our interviews, Nadia Huggins explains how her work with water allows her to re-represent the Caribbean beyond colonial imagery, and Lucas Leffler describes how his use of natural elements helps him create new photographic processes. In an article on sustainability and the photographic industry, Hannah Fletcher from The Sustainable Darkroom and Matt Barker from MPB tell us how they envision a sustainable future for photography and a collaborative community of photographers. Finally, for each issue of Photography+, we will be asking our readers to submit photographs in relation to the issue theme. We are thrilled to publish the first photograph drawn from our Community Submissions: Laura Denning’s Toxic Monocultures (2021). I look forward to working with more photographers from the Photography+ community over the coming months. I hope you enjoy reading this issue! With thanks, Nisha
For this issue of Photography+, we reached out to people whose work helps us rethink our photographic practices—how we change the way we produce and buy equipment, process photographs, build artistic communities, and confront the climate crisis as photographers.
Hannah Fletcher is a London-based artist, working with camera-less photographic processes. She is the founder of The Sustainable Darkroom, co-director of London Alternative Photography Collective, and a facilitator of sustainability within the arts.
Matt Barker combined his two passions, photography and maths, to create MPB from what started as a student project while studying Economics at the University of Warwick. MPB is now the world’s largest online platform for photographers & videographers to buy, sell, and trade kit, circulating more than 300,000 items of used kit every year. Matt is on a mission to make photography kit more accessible, more affordable, and more sustainable for visual storytellers around the globe.
Photography+: Thank you both very much for being part of this issue of Photography+. To start, could you both tell us a bit about how you came to be interested in photography and, in particular, in issues of sustainability as they relate to photography?
HF: I’ve been drawn to the photographic medium ever since my initial encounters with a darkroom at college. I then went on to study photography at university and haven’t stepped away from it since. I find it a somewhat paradoxical medium—very open ended in its possibilities but closed off and rooted in so much tradition at the same time. I am hopeful that we can harness a growing openness in photography to become a more environmentally-conscious industry and practice.
Sustainability is not something that I would say I am interested in. Rather, it is part of my everyday being: part of how I think, how I act, and how I move. To progress towards a just future of photography, we have to operate, think, and act in a more sustainable way. Being part of the industry, we all have to be part of that change.
A few years ago, the contradictions between my values and my photographic practice came to a bit of a pinnacle. I recognised that the materials, processes, and resources that I was working with in my photographic practice were not in line with my values—they felt somewhat disconnected from the way that I operate across the rest of my being. The more I began to critique and become aware of these conflicts, the more ideas and propositions I began to conjure up: ideas and dreams of how things could work differently and more harmoniously with nature. But without community, support, resources, or knowledge to realise them, they merely existed as fantasies. This is when I founded The Sustainable Darkroom.
MB: Thanks for having me! Back when I was studying Economics at the University of Warwick, I would buy and sell cameras on eBay to help fund my studies. I’ve always been a keen photographer, and I’d learnt everything there is to know about kit, as well as about identifying the market value of any given camera or lens.
At the time, there wasn’t really anywhere for photographers to buy cameras in an affordable way—at least not cameras that they could rely on. It’s hugely important for photographers to be able to trust their equipment.
In 2011, I founded MPB to open up access to photography and videography equipment in a more affordable, more secure, and more sustainable way. I honestly believe that used is better than new. Every photographer has a budget and being smart with your purchases is really important. Instead of buying a brand-new camera, you can choose the same model used and get the same performance—and still have money left for a few lenses too.
P+: You have both channelled your concerns about the environmental impact of photography into important projects that hold the value of sustainability at the centre (Hannah, with The Sustainable Darkroom, and Matt with MPB). Could you tell us more about your respective visions for these projects and what they aim to achieve in the present, as well as in the future?
HF: The Sustainable Darkroom relies on funding both from grants for our research and development residencies and from our Patreon supporters for talks, workshops, general operations, and more. We aim to support practitioners in developing their own more environmentally-friendly practices through various outlets including—but not limited to—research and development, teaching, giving talks, running residencies, and producing publications. The initiative is now run by three of us: me, Ed Carr, and Alice Cazenave. It was a lot of pressure running the organisation on my own, so I am unbelievably happy to have this amazing team alongside me now.
Ed runs our physical space, Northern Sustainable Darkroom, located in Leeds. This is where we have built our Photographic Garden, part of our current research and development residency, which is funded by the Genesis Foundation Kick Starter Fund. We are supporting 12 artists between September 2021-September 2022 to carry out research projects that investigate ways in which a garden can operate in conjunction with a darkroom. We are looking into plant-based alternatives to cyanotype chemistries, water filtration systems, plant-based RBG filters to use on photographic film, and so much more.
This month, we are launching a window gallery space in Leeds called Hot Compost. This will be a space where we show research and work developed with The Sustainable Darkroom. For the first year, it will exclusively show the research, work, and ideas being developed by the Photographic Garden artists in residence.
What else are we busying away at? I am in the process of building a solar-powered website for the organisation. Alice is teaching a number of workshops at schools and universities across the UK as well as planning some talks.
Looking forward, we plan to continue expanding our network of individuals and organisations involved in the initiative and to continue building our research and resources.
MB: The MPB platform has sustainability at its core. Our circular model keeps more products and materials in use across creative industries, supporting the shift by consumers and industries towards sustainability. Every year, MPB recirculates more than three hundred thousand cameras, lenses and accessories. We make it easy for photographers and videographers to access great kit in a sustainable way and without compromising on quality or performance.
We always strive to make MPB better and better for the environment. When photographers sell us their kit, the packaging is recycled. And when they buy used, their kit arrives in MPB packaging—all of which is 100% recycled, recyclable and plastic-free, while being safely packed to protect the kit inside. This is our second year of partnering with One Tree Planted to plant a tree for every item of used kit that consumers buy, sell, or trade in during the November shopping holidays. We want to continue to deepen the impact of making more sustainable consumer choices. Joining us in a couple of weeks is our Head of Sustainability, who will oversee and roll-out initiatives to further improve our positive impact on the planet. I’m proud of our green credentials, and I’m looking forward to developing them further.
P+: Since we’re in an era of profound ecological crisis that is causing so much suffering around the world (especially in the global South), we’re devoting this issue of Photography+ to better understanding the place of the photographer in confronting and documenting this crisis. In addition to creating sustainable darkroom practices and transforming the way we make and buy kit, do you have ideas on how photographers can contribute to our collective efforts to intervene in the climate crisis and heal the suffering it’s caused?
HF: We are already in a climate crisis and a lot of damage has already been done, though it is not visible or tangible for a large proportion of the population. The photographic industry still has a very long way to go in reducing its impact. Across all creative fields, we have a tendency to allow our goals and visions to take precedence over concerns about materiality or waste disposal. As the saying goes “Art knows no boundaries”; however, to operate in this so-called boundless existence is not sustainable when we live on a planet that has limitations and boundaries. I want to be able to continue working within this medium and for future generations to have to opportunity to do so too.
I encourage both you as organisations and individuals to evaluate the way that you operate and to unpick your own practice. Think about the tools, materials, and resources that are essential to the way you operate and then consider their origins, impact, waste products, energy usage, etc. For example, if you store all of your work on a cloud, begin asking yourself: do you know where that data storage space physically exists in the world? Do you know how much energy is required to maintain it? Is it being maintained and powered by renewable energy? Do you know what impact it is having on the local community? Have you weighed up alternative storage solutions?
A lot of our changes start by asking questions. Don’t underestimate the power of your voice.
MB: Photography has an immense power to make change. We recently commissioned a survey that found, due to photography or video, two in five people in the UK have changed their perspective on climate change. And visual storytelling has even motivated one in ten UK adults to vote in an election. I think that’s pretty amazing. At MPB, by making great kit accessible and affordable, we hope to enable photographers and videographers to challenge perspectives, document history, and inspire change.
I would suggest to any photographer to spend time thinking about their impact on the world around them and how, in return, the environment impacts them. Nearly half of photographers—including two-thirds of those under thirty-five—are concerned about the environmental impact of their craft and believe that reusing kit is the best way to reduce this impact.
P+: For young people who are interested in learning more about the intersections between photography and sustainability, do you have any advice on things to read, projects to follow, or places to get involved?
HF: We have two publications which are full of resources, recipes, ideas, and questions. These can be found on londonaltphoto.com. We also have a community on Patreon, where we provide regular tips and tricks and offer monthly troubleshooting sessions to discuss anything you might be working on or struggling with. This can be found at www.patreon.com/sustainabledarkroom. We have a number of recordings available to watch on London Alternative Photography Collective’s Youtube channel, which explore the practices of different artists who have been involved in The Sustainable Darkroom in some way or another.
Aside from us, there is a Facebook page you can check out called ‘Making photographic processes more sustainable,’ and I also recommend the podcast Photopocene, which interviews a range of photographic artists working in the photographic/sustainability field. Finally, there are a number of other organisations in the Arts who are doing great things including Gallery Climate Coalition, Villa Villa, Ki Culture, and Art/Switch.
MB: In terms of staying creative, just broaden your horizons and keep it simple. Look at the work of different photographers—as many as possible—then go out and keep taking as many photos as you can. Take inspiration, stay aware of the issues, and always push yourself to create more.
This year, we partnered with EyeEm to launch ‘The Environmentalist’ category at the EyeEm Awards. With more than 45,000 entries, we were thrilled with the quality and depth of the photographs. MPB had a seat on the jury, and we particularly appreciated the work of Jeremy John, Saiful Islam and Ryhor Bruyeu, so I would check out their amazing work! Follow @mpbcom on social media to learn more about our forthcoming competitions—we have plenty more in store.