In 2009, China-based French photographer Thomas Sauvin discovered more than half a million 35-mm film negatives at a Beijing recycling plant. The archival series that resulted, Beijing Silvermine, details the lives of ordinary Chinese citizens between 1985 and the early 2000s.
"I often hear people saying that these images show a face of China they haven't seen before," Sauvin told The New Yorker ("Thomas Sauvin's Beijing Silvermine," Oct. 20, 2014).
That concept is familiar to local artist Levi Bettwieser. Organizer of the Rescued Film Project, he knows that film snapshots have a way of capturing how people lived, rather than how they would like to be seen to have lived—and they're part of an aging legacy that needs to be preserved.
To that end, Bettwieser has been collecting rolls of film photographs—totaling more than 3,500 images so far—developing them by hand in his kitchen sink and archiving them online. During the past two years, he has spent hundreds of hours on the project, and has accumulated photos from Europe, Australia and across the United States. One objective of the Rescued Film Project is to reunite photos with the amateur photographers who snapped them. In mid-October, he connected a batch of film to its original owner for the first time, and said he hopes the project will keep gaining momentum. Apart from the satisfaction of reuniting a photograph and its owner, the project has added urgency—unlike digital images, film can be damaged or deteriorate over time.
"I'm actively looking and searching and asking people to donate film so you can rescue the images because film is an organic substance. It degrades over time. The idea is that you are rescuing it because if you're not finding it and actively developing it and scanning it and preserving it, it will all be gone eventually," Bettwieser said.
Because Bettweiser often processes many photos from a single source, his archive is full of stories pulled from anonymous peoples' lives. One of the first batches of film Bettwieser processed was 60 rolls of film he purchased at a storage unit sale. That much film, he said, represents between one and four years of a family's life. In one photo, a man sits on a toilet with a black eye and a red bandana, his genitals tucked between his legs. In another, the same man stands in a gravel driveway, shirtless and in jeans, with a red plastic Dixie cup in his hand.
"They seem fairly white trash. There are a lot of party pictures," Bettwieser said. "All of them generally look pretty happy. It's a fun life. It's interesting to look into someone's life at that capacity."
The shift from film to digital—from photo albums to photo streams—has changed how we think about snapshots, if not why we take them. Between the advent of popular film photography in the 1930s and digital photography in the early 2000s, people developed their snapshots and stored them in photo albums; but the rise of social media has led to millions of photos being shared online and curated for the approval of users' peers. One Instagram user, Toronto-based Internet marketing manager and blogger Mayoli Weidelich, told The New York Times that she and a friend spent 10 minutes composing a photo of a margarita glass over a plate of tacos at a restaurant.
Millennial self-awareness is often absent from the candid, rough snapshots of the film photography age. In the Rescued Film Project's archives, subjects are out of focus or the frame is crooked. Friends and relatives look dour or caught off guard. Oftentimes the photographer's emphasis is on capturing a moment rather than composing the perfect image. Film shooters, unlike their digital descendents, were not snapping photos for public consumption. That's especially true of 360 images of 35-mm film that Bettwieser developed from a single source. Many of the photos are of fireworks over the New York skyline, but one roll—36 photos—are of a woman sitting on a stoop outside an apartment, apparently snapped from inside another apartment. Others appear to have been taken for voyeuristic reasons—shot through someone's window at night.
"I can't tell if he's a creepy voyeur or police or a photojournalist or something. I've been looking at them trying to figure out who this person is," Bettwieser said.
The snoopy element is native to any found-film endeavor, and though Bettwieser said he's largely aloof from the inner lives of photos' shooters and subjects, and that he has dedicated his energies primarily to developing and archiving the photos, he admitted that posting such photos online is an invitation for people to try to connect the dots of the lives unfolding across photo series sometimes hundreds of images long.
"It's pretty voyeuristic. You're watching people in their most intimate, private moments that people never get to see," he said.