film advanced

thoughts & research into film shooting and processing.

How Many Animals were Harmed in the Making of this Film?

Agar’s Lane Horse, taken by me on RPX 400, pushed to 800.

Agar’s Lane Horse, taken by me on RPX 400, pushed to 800.

While scanning through my facebook feed, my friend Ruby shared some pictures of a party- all taken on Kodak Ultramax. One of her friends however pointed out something that I had never thought of:

Ruby is a vegan, and film is not a vegan product. Film is made of gelatin, which, as you may know, is a product of animal bones.

Ruby admitted being ignorant of this sin, and confessed on the spot. But she replied that while there was no vegan alternative in film at the moment, there was research into finding a vegan replacement. This triggered my cynicism alarm— film had been manufactured the same way for almost a century and with film sales at one of the lowest points in history, I didn’t see Kodak or Fuji pouring money into expensive R&D to make a few vegans happy.

I googled “film with no gelatin”:

The first result was this PETA article (which I’m assuming is the post that she found) that states:

Unfortunately, we do not know of any film that is made without gelatin. Over the years, PETA has pressured film manufacturers to find a gelatin substitute, and while Kodak and Fuji have researched non-animal alternatives, they still claim that they cannot replace animal gelatin in film…

With a bit more internet snooping I came across an article by Mirko Böddecker, which seems to have been written in response to the PETA one. It’s difficult for me to take just one quote from the piece, because it's so succinct and directly answers every question I had to ask. I recommend you just read it yourself, but to paraphrase:

Film is not vegan, never will be and alternatives to gelatine have already been investigated in the 50’s and 60’ and did not work. However, gelatine is probably also the best option in terms of sustainability, as it bio-degrades and it’s production is essentially recycling of dead animals.

Gelatin is manufactured from skeletons of dead animals -yes- but after all animals will die at a certain point and for sure no animals are killed especially for making gelatin… The photographic industry today is so unimportant that we are using less than 1/ of the animal byproducts which arise from the meat industry.

The amount of gelatin used to make film is tiny:

We are coating with about 3-9 grams per sqm which equals 16 films.

So the bones of one dead horse can deliver enough gelatin for tens of thousands of films.

I worked at probably one of, if not the busiest labs in Australia. On a good month, we would scan maybe 1500 rolls of film, and that is including rescans of old rolls. Conservatively estimating (as tens of thousands being 20 000 thousand), one horse would give us all gelatin for all the film we processed with plenty left over for our end of year Aspic cookoff:

If only it came more than just once a year…

If only it came more than just once a year…

So to think ecologically though, as in the entire film development process- let's start with the principal developing chemical in C-41 process which is p-phenylenediamine. Phenylenediamine, in addition to being hard to pronounce (glad this is an article and not a video) is considered an allergen by the EPA. Para-phenylenediamine is nasty and is an allergen, especially, when it's dispersed as a dust. If you unknowingly spill some developer containing the stuff and let it dry on the floor, the dust that you kick up can produce severe dermatitis.

I wouldn’t want to take a bath in C-41 developer, for sure, but as long as I’m careful not to get it on my skin or eyes, I’m not too concerned about my long term exposure to it. As far as long term ecological impacts goes, I would assume they are relatively minor.  There are plenty of worse chemicals that are used in photographics. Phenylenediamine developer seems to be one of the least harmful in comparisons with bromine based ones, which are highly toxic and hard to dispose of.

The bleaching agent is Ferric Ammonium EDTA (ethylene diamine tetra-acetic acid), which is relatively innocuous. The biggest problem is after processing you are left with a surplus of silver solution as waste. Silver in solution is toxic, very much so to aquatic organisms, one reason for recovering it from photolab waste systems, but there's hardly any there for humans to worry about. In B&W film about half of remains as developed silver grains -- the image. Colour film is different, since all the silver is bleached out. Color film contains roughly 150 mg of silver in a 36-exposure 35 mm roll.

Film production and development is not an environmentally pure process by any length of the imagination; it’s hard to think of any industrial process that is. But it shouldn’t keep you awake at night thinking of all the animals that are murdered for the sake of printing your holiday snaps or that portrait for Grandma’s coffin. If anything, you should feel sanctimonious about it (provide you’re not shooting film with a disposable camera) because film cameras are old, recycled and generally have a much greater life expectancy than any digital camera.

CCD’s and CMOS sensors are made out of rare earth materials, that are generally mined in Sub Saharan Africa under oppressive regimes. The manufacture of these compenents is also largely done by China, which has very little environmental regulation or waste management schemes in place, and shipped across the seas in a large tanker ships then expected to be replaced by a new model in as a little as a year.

I would argue that there is pretty strong reason to shoot film if you have any concern about the environment or animal welfare, if you have to shoot anything at all. Not that I’m giving up my digital camera any time soon. You’d have to take that from my cold, dead, horses hooves.