Mountains Of Metadata: Is Digital Photography Sustainable?
+January 03, 2021
In 2008, the author Saci Lloyd published The Carbon Diaries. A YA novel, set in the near future in the UK, with the government being the first nation to introduce carbon dioxide rationing, in a drastic bid to combat climate change. The characters in the story each have a plastic credit card that holds their individual carbon credit and the card must be used for all daily activity, whether for transport, using a digital device or buying food.
According to climatecare.org, there are an estimated 2.5 billion people around the world connected to the internet, so carbon rationing for individual citizens no longer seems so outlandish. The internet has transformed our lives in only ten years. The devices that we use every day to listen to music, to telephone and text, to watch films and series and to take dozens, if not hundreds of photos and videos, generate vast amounts of digital date that is stored and passed through huge data centers. These centers need vast amounts of electricity to run 24/7. In its 2013 sustainability report, Facebook stated its data centers used 986 million kilowatt-hours of electricity—around the same amount consumed by Burkina Faso in 2012.
In the days of film photography, the industry used and discarded rolls of film consisting of a light-sensitive emulsion (silver, nitric acid, and gelatins) fixed on cellulose acetate, plastic or metal canisters for the film, various chemicals for developing images and paper. Digital photography at first seemed to be far more ecological and therefore sustainable alternative, notably because so many photographs are never printed and simply stored on our phones and computers or in the Cloud. Unfortunately the opposite may be true. Whereas the cost of film and developing obliged photographers in the past to think before shooting, now it’s all too easy to click away, creating hundreds of shots that will never be printed.
Should we be concerned about the negative impact of taking digital photos on our environment?
The Greenpeace campaign Clicking Clean 3 calls on major internet companies to stop depending on dirty energy like coal, in order to power our fast growing digital lives with renewables instead. Leading IT companies like Apple, Facebook and Google are embracing innovation and committing to 100% renewable energy. This strategy is probably more for the marketing value of being environmentally friendly, rather than any deep concern about climate change, but it is progress. The fact that companies increasingly highlight sustainability information when dealing with the media, demonstrates a growing public concern for The Cloud’s environmental impact.
You can argue that if the energy used by a digital process is renewable, the energy consumed by that process is not important. Ultimately, companies that make green technology choices to reduce their environmental impact, will have far more impact on carbon emissions than individuals.
However, while examining the environmental cost of photography, we must add to the carbon foot print of storing mountains of data, the problem of electronic waste. We, the consumers, love to replace things: smartphones, cameras, tablets, laptops, LCDs, portable music players. Almost every electronic device has been intentionally designed to become obsolete, to breakdown or to be rapidly out of date, compared with a newer model. We are guilty of discarding electronics at the slightest inconvenience. It is difficult and often costly to repair things and often cheaper to buy a new item. The increase in consumption of electronics has two main ecological consequences. First, it increases the mining and procurement of the rare materials needed for their production. Second, the discarded devices produce vast quantities of electronic waste. That waste can be reduced through reuse, repair, or resale and fortunately the secondhand market is booming.
One photographer has taken the problem of sustainability to heart. Professional photographer and researcher Ira Lombardia, who lives and works in Syracuse in the state of New York, decided in 2012 to stop making new images for 1000 days, that is three years.
She explains her motives in an interview for Elle x Paris Photo, a campaign that began three years ago, led by the French Ministry of Cultural Affairs in association with Paris Photo, to increase the visibility of women photographers. The series of interviews is hosted on the Fisheye Le Mag You Tube channel:
I went on a visual strike. Photography now is just data. Our current visual environment has only existed for one decade. When we share images on the Internet, we are in fact sharing metadata. I asked myself what is the point of throwing out more images into an already hyper saturated visual world. To paraphrase Roland Barthes, I feel that photography now is a code without a message.
During her visual strike, Ira was able to search for a way forward for her photographic practice/art. Influenced by the photographer Barbara Kruger, who was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1945, Ira decided to turn to appropriating images instead of creating new ones. Kruger is internationally renowned for her layered images of found photographs, from existing sources, with challenging captions.
Using her trademark black letters against a slash of red background, some of her famous and infamous slogans are: “I shop therefore I am,” and “Your body is a battleground." Much of her work, questions the viewer about feminism, classicism, consumerism, and individual autonomy and desire, although her black-and-white images are culled from the mainstream magazines that sell the very ideas she is disputing.
By the end of the three year hiatus, Ira found her way forward.
All my work now is related to appropriating images, I do not take photos anymore. I think of myself as a visual ecologist. I want my work to be sustainable. I only work with images that already exist and many are in the public domain.
Ira Lombardia’s work questions the current status of image production and promotes moderation in that production. She challenges us to re-examine not only our professional photography practices, but also our lustful habit of documenting the minutia of daily life for social media.