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How has photography shaped us and our planet?

Published: 17 August 2023

We've explored the origins of photochemistry and the pioneers and discoveries that pushed the art form forward. But what is happening in photography today, and how do our snaps impact the world around us?

For the photographer concerned about their environment footprint, a puzzling ethical quandary arises in the confines of the darkroom...

Is photography vegan?

Conventional film stock, even today, is dependent on gelatin derived from animals—a substance whose unique properties have been incredibly difficult to replicate without animal products.

In the digital era you might think that photography has transcended these conventional methods, but the reality is more nuanced.

We’re in a period when pixels may seem to replace emulsions and when there are increasing efforts to adopt a more eco-conscious approach to photography. Digital cameras, equipped with advanced sensors and software, offer an immediate alternative to using gelatin-coated film stock.

Clockwise from top left: photos of a horse with text "12 hours", cow (24 hours), pig (24 hours) and sheep (36 hours) Science Museum Group Collection
Nestled within the Daily Herald Archive lies a fascinating image: a photo of various farm animals, likely printed on gelatin. Gelatin, a ubiquitous ingredient in photographic prints, is derived from animal parts such as skin, bones and connective tissues.

But mimicking physical film’s distinctive attributes continues to pose a challenge. Can we genuinely replicate the essence of a film photograph without resorting to animal by-products? Is the transition to digital photography merely a technological progression, or is it an ethical awakening? 

Technology, artistry and ethics intersect in this discussion.  Choosing between traditional film and digital alternatives isn't just a matter of artistic preference; it could reflect our values and the future we envision for photography.

Digital revolution and environmental impacts

Is digital photography's lack of harsh chemicals and material waste truly a step forward for planet earth? The answer might not be picture-perfect. Digital methods bypass the chemical soup of traditional film processing, but they introduce a whole new set of problems. 

E-waste is piling up as yesterday's gadgets become tomorrow's garbage, and finite mineral resources are consumed to create every new camera and smartphone. So, as we snap away with our state-of-the-art devices, it's worth pausing to focus on a complex issue: Is the digital revolution in photography a clear environmental win, or are we just swapping of one set of problems for another?

A thermal image of two smartphones with their respective temperatures

The image above offers a visualisation of the heat within our beloved gadgets. Those sleek smartphones and sophisticated cameras aren't just capturing memories; they're sipping on energy, running warm, and contributing to our environmental impact. This image invites us to pause and ponder the environmental ripple effects of our shutter clicks, nudging us to think about the broader picture of sustainability beyond the frame.

Changing perspectives

Photography isn't just a click, it's a perspective. Photographic images have captured iconic people and moments, shifted worldviews, documented history and even launched social movements.

Photograph by Sir Cecil Beaton of American film star Marilyn Monroe, 1956. Silver gelatin copy print made c.1970s.
Science Museum Group More information about Photograph by Sir Cecil Beaton of American film star Marilyn Monroe, 1956. Silver gelatin copy print made c.1970s.
Aneurin Bevan visiting Silvia Beckenham, the first National Health Service (NHS) patient at Park Hospital, Davyhulme, Manchester, 1948.
Daily Herald Archive/Science Museum Group/SSPL More information about Aneurin Bevan visiting Silvia Beckenham, the first National Health Service (NHS) patient at Park Hospital, Davyhulme, Manchester, 1948.

Next time you snap a pic, remember you're holding a tool that can change minds and even the world. Here's to the artists, activists, and insta-influencers who frame our future.