On a Roll with the Rescued Film Project

Levi Bettwieser never intended to find and restore film. Initially, his mission was to collect old cameras. He had a fascination with their intricacy, and the freelance photographer would comb through thrift stores in Boise to collect these archaic pieces of technology. Bettwieser had no idea what he found inside these cameras would completely change the trajectory of his work with photography.

Bettwieser would discover film tucked away in these old cameras, and from this, The Rescued Film Project was born. The Rescued Film Project obtains and develops “orphaned” rolls of film from the 1930s to as late as the 1990s. Orphaned rolls are anonymous rolls of film, often found in old cameras without any traceable origins. After the film is developed, it is scanned into a digital format and posted to the project’s Instagram account for the world to see. Bettwieser is the first to view these snapshots and intimate memories from the past, sifting through seemingly endless frozen moments of time.

Bettwieser and I chat in his office in the back of his cozy Boise home where much of the work behind The Rescued Film Project occurs. The office, barely big enough to fit his equipment, film, and our chairs, is crammed with old cameras and equipment. A refrigerator for storing film sits to my left, and boxes of donations from around the world surround every wall. A large black safe to protect the developed film from flooding and fire damage looms over Bettwieser as he rests in his chair across from me. He taps bookshelves of boxes, indicating that much of the film is organized by name, origin, black and white, or color. During our interview, Bettwieser often peers at me from behind a large Apple desktop that starkly contrasts the rest of the antiquities in the room. A scanner rests quietly in the corner, waiting for another batch of film.

Two large contrasting prints hang on the wall behind me. “These are both photos from the project,” Bettwieser explains when I ask about them. He gestures to the picture to our right, taken with an underwater camera. “A little boy took this of his buddy. All the photos from that role were actually really good. You could tell they were having so much fun. They were two boys – I’m assuming – and they were just playing around.” Bettwieser enjoys witnessing moments of human honesty like this while developing film.

Bettwieser has no background in film processing. As he scoured the Boise area for old cameras, he began to find forgotten film hidden inside. He became curious about what images the film contained. Once he collected 30 rolls, he purchased processing chemicals online and began to experiment. Soon, the 30 rolls were gone and Bettwieser was hooked. He needed more film, so he took to the internet.

“The project started out just for myself,” Bettwieser says when I ask him about why he began The Rescued Film Project. “But, once I developed enough film, I started toying with the idea of putting these images out into the world.”

Bettwieser claims that at first, developing these photos felt slightly voyeuristic since they came from local thrift stores. Since Boise is a smaller city, the odds that Bettwieser is somehow connected to the subjects of the photos are fairly high. To avoid this problem, he started buying film off of Ebay from all over the world. That was when he decided to make the project public.

Bettwieser processes film on the weekends and when he gets home from his day job. He acquires film from various sources; people donate film almost every week, and Bettwieser often bids for film on Ebay. Since the project has taken off, he says, film is much more difficult to acquire online.

“It seems like more people are interested in restoring film after they’ve heard about The Rescued Film Project,” he says. “I think that’s great. Even though it’s harder for me to win auctions online, the more people restoring film the better. I just want it all to be developed and seen.”

When asked what would happen if his supply of film depleted too much to continue the project, Bettwieser said he would turn his attention to researching where the photos came from, archiving, and tracking down the subjects. For now, he says he’s focused on developing as many photos as possible while they’re still available.

Bettwieser begins the process of rescuing film by labeling the film by origin or name. Then, he sorts the film by color or black and white. He places the film in his queue, and, when the time comes, the film is transported to the bathroom and loaded in complete darkness to avoid light leakage. Bettwieser processes in the kitchen and then the film hangs dry for at least 24 hours. After about 600 images, or what he calls a “batch,” the images are sent to Bettwieser’s friend, Eric Bower, who runs The Rescued Film Project’s Instagram.

In some cases, family members who have found film after the death of a relative contact Bettwieser. Once the film is scanned, he emails the images to the family, which is an intimate journey into the emotional topography of human lives.

“It’s a way for them to reconnect with family members after they’re gone,” says Bettwieser. “They find these rolls of films in drawers and they don’t know what to do with them. Usually, it’s film they’ve never seen before, and it’s very special for those people.”

“I processed a bunch of rolls from a guy back east,” he says. “They were photos of him as a toddler that he had obviously never seen. He could name every person in them. And, obviously, most, if not all, of the people in those photos were deceased, so he was getting a little emotional on the phone. It’s really incredible to hear those stories.”

Bettwieser says 99% of the images he sees document the human experience in still-frame spots of time. The images he restores are vintage moments that may seem mundane, yet they remain special to the people that captured them.

“Someone should get to enjoy those moments, since, obviously, the photographer never got to see them. That’s why I do this,” he says as he examines strips of film delicately dangling from the ceiling.

One of the restored photos yielded some curious results. Last year, Bettwieser restored an orphaned roll of film found in the back of a camera from a thrift store in town. The photo was uploaded to Instagram, and three months into the project, someone online recognized the subject of the photo as her father. The photo was of a family gathering where the girl’s parents gave her a new dog. The young woman was excited to be reunited with the images and was deeply curious about where they came from. Bettwieser and the woman emailed back and forth for weeks about the photos.

“It was a really positive experience for her, which I was happy about,” Bettwieser says. Now, families from all around the world donate their film to The Rescued Film Project to see what memories are floating in the margins.

Sometimes, Bettwieser finds what he calls “edgier photos” of drug use and nudity. At one point, Vice Magazine was interested in publishing them, but Bettwieser refused.

“There’s no moral stand against [publishing those photos] beyond I don’t want to invade anyone’s privacy,” he says. Bettwieser wants to avoid exploiting the subjects of his photos as much as possible. If he could track down everyone in the “edgy” photos and obtain their consent, he absolutely would publish the photos online.

“It’s not for any moral stand,” says Bettwieser. “I think [The Rescued Film Project] is a very honest showing of what humans do. And that’s exactly what the point is. I want the images to be out there. People created them, and this is what people do. But I don’t want to exploit or invade anyone’s privacy.”

Bettwieser states that when many of these photos were taken, the subjects knew someone was going to see them unless they had the means to process photos themselves. Many of the “edgier” photos cropped out or obscured faces because the subjects had to be more careful than today.

“I just want to be honest and accurate to what we do as humans since there’s so much digital manipulation of photos now,” Bettwieser says. “It’s different today. Photos aren’t taken for the same reasons they used to be. There’s much more anonymity with the rise of the internet, but these people are vulnerable and honest. That’s why I like the project so much.”

Bettwieser has been featured in publications and blogs all around the globe, including National Geographic, The Daily Beast, Vice, a daily talk show in Australia, and local outlets like the Idaho Statesman, Boise Weekly, Idaho Press Tribune, Built in Boise, and Channel 7 News, for photos from WWII that went viral online. One of the pictures from the WWII batch hangs as a large print on the wall behind me.

The black and white image depicts men in uniform on a barge attending a church service. The men face with their backs to the camera, focused on the preacher, whose hands are gripped tightly on a microphone. But, one passenger, who is closest to the camera, leans against a railing. He is dressed in a kitchen worker’s uniform, staring straight into the camera with a piercing, sharp gaze.

“It’s like he’s rebelling against all this. That’s what I’ve always taken from this photo,” says Bettwieser.

When asked why he thought these particular photos went viral, Bettwieser responds that they’re centered around a worldwide event relatable to millions of people. After the photos were shared globally, several questions still went unanswered, like why the film wasn’t ever developed or what happened to the photographer. But, since the photos reached such a wide audience, Bettwieser was able to track down the location of the photos with help from fans of his social media pages, which is unusual.

The photos ranged from Pennsylvania to France near the end of the war, just before Reconstruction. Bettwieser says he wishes he could have someone dedicated full time to tracking down who the kitchen worker is. If Bettwieser had the time he would research more about this striking man, but his day job and his focus on developing the film consumes his time.

In the future, Bettwieser wants to build a more intuitive website for The Rescued Film Project and create an online archive where users can tag and research photos themselves. This crowdsourcing of information could help alleviate some of the questions behind the film, since right now Bettwieser’s attention is focused on rescuing as much film as possible before it’s gone. Bettwieser would like to explore restoring 8mm film footage in the future and is interested in publishing either a book of photos or a quarterly magazine.

“I’m not looking to profit off of this work,” Bettwieser says with conviction. “I just want to find ways to get these photos out into the world. Any profits that came from a book would go straight back into The Rescued Film Project.”

“We use photos to combat time,” Bettwieser mentions as he picks up a series of photos he has put together for a family project. “These moments were previously gone, but now they’re resurrected.” As it continues to excavate the past, The Rescued Film Project will revisit these spots of memory long forgotten.

This article was originally published for Honeycomb Magazine.