By Ruta Nekiunaite
Ecosystems & Economics module, Akademie Mode & Design Berlin
July 2022

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Product structure of a digital camera. Adapted from John, Sridharan, Kumar (2017)
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“There is nothing wrong with standing back and thinking” Susan Sontag (2003)

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According to Rockström et al. (2009), for about 10,000 years, our environment has been in a state called Holocene – it has been extraordinarily steady for a long time. However, since the Industrial Revolution, when people have become the driving force of environmental change, the steady state has been disturbed and evolved into Anthropocene. As the most rapid human evolution has been thriving under the former steady state, this disturbance is advised to be stopped since it can significantly harm Earth’s hospitality for human life (Steffen et al., 2015).

In order to get a grasp of what level of disturbance would still result in a safe planetary state, a framework of Planetary Boundaries (PB) has been developed by Rockström et al. (2009). The concept does not indicate a point of no return if some boundaries are exceeded but instead proposes a safe zone for humanity to thrive and react in case a boundary limit is approaching.

As mentioned in the project introduction section, creative industries on a broad scale have recently become one of the most dynamic branches of our economy. On the other hand, photography has been developing hand-in-hand with the Industrial Revolution since its beginning – one of the first pictures ever taken shows people in industrial manufacturing sites (Barger, White, 2000). Though photo technology has been advancing quite rapidly, even the newest products and processes still leave a substantial ecological footprint as various chemicals, heavy metals, and various components are still needed to get the result. Therefore, the effect of photography on one of the planetary boundaries – novel entities and chemical pollution – is studied in this article. The negative footprint of photography and its applications towards a positive impact on the planetary boundary are analysed.

What are novel entities and chemical pollution?

The planetary boundary of novel entities and chemical pollution is described as “new substances, new forms of existing substances, and modified life forms that have the potential for unwanted geophysical and/or biological effects” (Steffen et al., 2015). Even though evidence that the boundary limit has been crossed appeared only earlier this year (Persson et al., 2022), it has been known for some time that the magnitude of these entities is mesmerising – more than 10,000 different substances exist in global commerce (not including nanomaterials and plastic polymers that split into microplastics when degrading). Typically, novel entities can be categorised into two main areas – i) chemicals and newly created substances, which have not existed in the Earth system before, and ii) existing natural materials (such as heavy metals) used for anthropogenic reasons. Issues arise if these materials are introduced to the environment and i) persist there, ii) are widely mobilised, and iii) impact essential Earth systems and sub-systems.

How does photography contribute to the introduction of the planetary boundary?

Under this section, the analysis of how photography negatively affects the planetary boundary is carried out. To begin with, two main types of photography exist – analogue (or film) and digital. The former relies on a physical plastic film roll being exposed to light and later developed, while the latter uses sensors and electronic chips to capture, read, and store the image information.

Analogue photography

A wide variety of chemicals are necessary to develop an analogue picture. Photo chemicals typically consist of a liquid (needs diluting) or powder state (needs dissolving and diluting) (Photography, n.d.). Different chemicals are needed for i) developing baths, ii) stopping baths, and iii) the fixers. The function of developing baths lies in the name itself – it develops a picture that has been captured on the film by bringing out the silver halides. Developing baths typically need agents like hydroquinone, phenidone, and dimezone (Betters, n.d.), most of which are moderately to highly toxic by ingestion (Photography, n.d). The developing agents will continue exposing an image until they are stopped – that is where the stop baths come in to stop an image from overexposure. Acetic acid, which is highly toxic by inhalation, skin contact, and ingestion, is typically used in this step. Lastly, the image is fixed by removing unnecessary film parts (namely the silver halides) and stopped from further reaction to light. Ammonium thiosulfate and sodium thiosulfate are typically used chemicals that are not highly toxic but may cause skin allergies or irritation. Even though popularity in film photography shrank since the introduction of digital photography, all these substances are still widely used without a scalable chemical handling and reuse solution.

Digital photography

The camera is at the forefront of digital photography since pictures do not need additional exposure to be developed but are stored in the camera. Therefore, the manufacturing of a digital camera is a complex process. Various electronic components, some of which require toxic material exposure, are included – mining of precious metals is necessary for assembly parts, microchips require lead (a toxic metal), and production of semiconductors, a necessary part, is environmentally hazardous (Urth Magazine, n.d.). The essential camera component parts are summarised based on a work by John, Sridharan, Kumar (2017), who, being concerned with the amounts of electronic waste disposed to the environment, designed a multi-product, multi-echelon reverse logistics network for mobile phones and digital cameras on a component and material level.

Even though sales of digital cameras decreased over time, dropping 87% since 2010, more than 15 million units were sold in 2019 nonetheless (Richter, 2020). Given that the drop is caused by the adoption of smartphones rather than a decrease in the interest in taking pictures, digital cameras’ manufacturing is still a significant source of introduction of novel entities and chemical pollution.

Is one better than the other?

As both production and usage methods differ, there is a constant debate about which method is less polluting. While the answer is not directly clear, disposal at the end of use is a problematic issue for both types. Analogue cameras tend to last longer (nowadays, some photographers prefer using vintage cameras instead of the new ones) but require more chemical substances and plastic films that persist in the environment and do not biodegrade. Digital photography picture development is less chemically pollutant. However, camera lifespan is shorter, creating an issue of novel entities being introduced for anthropogenic reasons, distributed all over the world and persisting there with no utilisation after end-of-life. Hence, for analogue photography, it is essential to keep control of the regulations for companies to take care of the leftover chemicals properly. In contrast, work on and support for recycling solutions to utilise precious planetary substances is necessary for the digital photography field.

Can photography help?

Photography has the power to communicate an issue that is typically not seen by everyone as of ‘here and now’. Hence, an obvious answer to the question could be that snapshots of the environmental issues on a planetary scale would make people more environmentally conscious. A famous photojournalist Robert Capa once said: “If your pictures are not good enough, you are not close enough”. Though it is not always that simple. What if the subject and its magnitude are above our comprehension – “How do we visualise pollution that vibrates beyond the realm of our human senses, or is rendered unknowable by the deferral of harm to future generations?” (Davies, 2018) Or how do you capture environmental issues of the future? It should instead reach an audience via indirect and more personalized methods. Here three different cases are described in order to illustrate it.

Tragic beauty

In a project named ‘Plastic Ocean’, Dutch artist and photographer Thirza Schaap combines the art of sculpture with photography (Ritter, 2021). She collects plastic waste from the oceans, uses the material to build interesting shapes, and takes astonishing pictures of the result. The artist examines humanity’s relation to plastic as a material. A very thin line between the disturbance of perceiving the material as waste and beauty is drawn. It raises questions about how we grasp and identify materials we have created and introduced to our environment by ourselves. When collecting the materials, the artist once found a shampoo bottle from her youth – a short-term benefit of function and appealing appearance, but long-term persistence after this stage frames the whole plastic concept into beauty in its own tragic way.

Call for corporate responsibility

Another renowned project investigates and documents the devastating harm of corporate actions. In a book called “Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation“, photographer Mathieu Asselin depicts five years of observations of Monsanto’s (one of the most widely known agricultural companies) legacy through photographing surrounding landscapes, employees and their families, and personal belongings (Asselin, 2019). He calls for action towards corporate responsibility by showing what effect toxic chemicals (for example, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) have on the environment and human health (Davies, 2018). He documented a person standing next to a grave of a relative, who died at the age of 16 as a result of complications from the PCB exposure. He also captured a girl born with no arms because of genetic malfunction caused by Agent Orange – a form of herbicide – and struggling to get into any school due to her life complications. By documenting these people, he brought shocking stories to a broader audience, exposing tragic choices by a corporation, which, despite being aware of the harm, continued its operations without any improvement.

Means of education

The last example illustrates how photography can be used as means of educating people about chemical pollution. Being so ubiquitous – most people nowadays hold a smartphone camera in their pockets – photography can be used to teach a point through a personalised view.

A persisting challenge to convince medical students to have a positive attitude towards social health determinants inspired a study by Subramaniam and Gopichandran (2018). Medicine students were taken to a thermal power plant and instructed to take pictures and later share them on social media. A later focus group discussion showed that the exercise resulted in students being involved in the environmental issues of their region, reflecting more often on those photographs, and having a more serious attitude towards public health.

Another similar study focused on the geography field; bet showed equally promising results. Davis et al. (2019) experimented with picture taking and sharing on Instagram as a teaching method on a geography field trip in Berlin. Students were asked to perform several tasks in order to increase their engagement and personal reflection of the subject thought. For example, they were told to study earlier historic city site photographs by a photographer Stefan Koppelkamm and try to recreate the same shot during the field trip. This resulted in students being more attentive to details and noticing changes in architecture and its surroundings.

Due to the complexity of materialising environmental issues caused by novel entities and chemical pollution, photography can be an effective tool to encourage people to stop and think, raise questions, and try to understand the issue through a personalised lens.


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