Is the requirement for ecological photographic art narrow-minded?

The Festival of Political Photography took a bold stand at the Finnish Museum of Photography. Most of the photos at the exhibition were printed on cotton-based paper and nailed to the wall unframed, without mounting. This style of hanging bewildered and offended some visitors. They felt that it was inappropriate for a museum and demeaning to the works of photographic art. The purpose, however, was to provoke discussion about ecological photography.

Awareness of the environmental impact of photography arose in the 1990s. Before that, photographers had casually handled chemicals in their darkrooms that were thick with cigarette smoke without giving a second thought to their environmental effects. In 1994, a working group of the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts published the handbook Ecophoto, a compilation of the basic principles of environmentally friendly photography: chemicals must not be released into the environment, respiratory organs must be protected, and each darkroom should be shared by several photographers. Recycling bins and respirators soon became standard features of darkrooms.

Today, in the age of digital imaging, photography is more popular than ever as an art form. With digital photography, chemicals have practically become obsolete and recycling and ecological issues have become figures of speech. However, the environmental effects of photography are rarely discussed, even though the endless need for new equipment, among other factors, burdens the environment. The newest cameras always allow for even larger, higher-quality prints. The previous models, even if purchased only recently, are not good enough even for charity.

The current view of photographic art has had a dramatic effect on exhibitions and the way in which the public views photographs in an exhibition space.

Photographs have become works of art that are usually made available in editions. An edition is a commercial agreement on making a specific photograph available only in a predetermined, publicly announced number of copies. Its purpose is to prevent unrestricted copying and ensure that the work of photographic art retains its value. Photographs in editions are rare treasures, and exhibitions seek to showcase their quality as objects of value, in addition to displaying impressive images. Sturdy mounting, acrylic coating, smoothed frames and non-reflective museum glass create an impression of high quality.

An exhibition is a place where photographs can be placed on the stage. An exhibition space is supposed to highlight photographs as something other than images that can be copied and distributed infinitely. Impressive shapes enhance this effect by distancing a photograph from the daily stream of images that surrounds us.

People have specific expectations of exhibition spaces at museums, as museums are seen as places that show how works of culture that are exhibited and preserved for future generations should be appreciated and protected. Prints nailed to a wall – no matter how impressive they are – do not necessarily meet these expectations of appreciation, even if they allow visitors to perceive the feel of the material and the difference in tones in the best possible way.

In terms of environmental effects, these expectations make the choice of exhibition materials many times more difficult. The selection of printing materials is wide, and the materials are usually highly durable. The most significant problems are related to mounting. Aluminium and plastic compounds are the most commonly used mounting materials. The processing of aluminium is highly energy-intensive, and its extraction may cause local environmental catastrophes. The use of plastic compounds is equally questionable.

Is the requirement for ethical and environmentally friendly art restrictive and narrow-minded? Are the environmental effects of art so marginal that choices of materials are not globally significant? Mounting companies do not seem to understand the question of more ecological choices. Not yet, anyway.

When works of photographic art are produced and exhibited, what should be the focus of attention? How should photographs be presented to make an impact on viewers? What are we looking at in photos on a wall in an exhibition space? These are the important issues that we discussed in conjunction with the Festival of Political Photography. If we agree that the questions of power and responsibility related to presenting and viewing photographs are important issues related to exhibitions, we will think carefully about how to present photographs in conjunction with each exhibition. Each time, we will ask who and what purpose the works of photographic art serve.

This discussion continues on our website. We challenge all those who are interested in participating and finding good answers.

When the Festival of Political Photography exhibition is dismantled and the prints are packed up and sent back to the photographers, we can be pleased with our carbon footprint once again. Transporting only prints consumes less fuel, and prints need less storage space. Small is also beautiful.


Anna-Kaisa Rastenberger and Sanni Seppo