How the Rescued Film Project Preserves America’s Lost and Forgotten Photos

Rescued Film Project
Rescued Film Project / Rescued Film Project

Boise, Idaho-based photographer Levi Bettwieser is on a search and rescue mission to save America’s forgotten, undeveloped photos. As the creator of the Rescued Film Project, Bettwieser spends his days perusing online auctions and rifling through bins at flea markets to find abandoned rolls of film. His mission is simple: To leave no roll of film undeveloped.

The photos Bettweiser develops and uploads on the Rescued Film Project website run the gamut of subjects, locations, and eras. Spanning the 1930s through the 1990s, most of the photos depict the day-to-day life of Americans. There are children’s birthday parties and holiday celebrations, family vacations and high school graduations. But while most of the photos provide insights into daily life in the 20th century, others portray important moments in history. Last year, Bettweiser developed 31 rolls of film shot by an unidentified American soldier during World War II, adding battlefields and army uniforms to the Rescued Film Project’s online archive.

“Once I processed my first batch of film and saw how many images I got, it made me realize that there must be thousands of rolls of film out there that are lost or forgotten that contain images in need of rescuing,” Bettweiser tells mental_floss. “While so many of the images we rescue might be classified as ‘ordinary,’ we realize that they all were moments in time that was special for someone.”

For the last few years, Bettweiser has been running the Rescued Film Project on his own, feeding his personal time and money into developing lost photos. But now, he’s reaching out to the internet for help with his largest photo project to date. Bettweiser recently acquired 1200 rolls of film from the 1950s, shot by a steel worker named Paul. The film, which has never been developed, was packaged meticulously in 66 bundles, each containing eight to 36 rolls of film. Though the photographer never developed—and therefore never saw—his own photos, he carefully wrapped each roll of film in aluminum foil and athletic tape, labeled it, and packaged it in a cigar box. Bettweiser says the film rolls were so tightly packaged, it took a team of eight volunteers six hours just to open 22 of the 66 bundles.

Because 1200 rolls of film is significantly more than Bettweiser can process on his own, and because the old film is rapidly deteriorating, Bettweiser is raising money for this project on Indiegogo. He’s teamed up with Blue Moon Camera in Portland, Oregon, who have agreed to develop the film at a discount, and is looking for donations to help pay for shipping and film processing costs. “With this batch we feel it's important to process it as soon as possible so we are asking for help,” Bettweiser explains. “I have a feeling that, because of the way it was packaged, the photographer meant for these images to be revealed much later in the future.  So I really feel like by processing the film and rescuing the images, we are somehow fulfilling his hopes and justifying all the work he put into packaging and cataloging the film.”

Check out Bettweiser’s fundraising video, and a few choice photos from the Rescued Film Project, below.

All images courtesy of Rescued Film Project