What happens to all those old rolls of film sitting in moving boxes or buried in junk drawers? The Rescued Film Project gives new life to forgotten film.

Levi Bettwieser is a rescuer.

In 2012, the full-time video producer, part-time thrift shopper realized something.

“I’d always walk by the [thrift store] camera section and notice a lot of the cameras still had film in them,” Levi said. “And since I could process film for free by myself, out of sheer curiosity, I started buying the cameras for $10 a piece, going home, opening them up in the dark to pull the film out.”

He had low expectations of salvaging anything.

“You assume that people are going to open the backs of cameras or the film is degraded,” said Levi.

So when the first few rolls he developed actually contained photographs, it sparked his curiosity. He had to find more film. And so he did. Levi spent 2012 scavenging Boise thrift stores, buying everything he could find and developing it.

Credit: Rescued Film Project
Credit: The Rescued Film Project

He took it a step further and gave the obsession a name — The Rescued Film Project — and began asking for film donations online. Accepting film of any kind, of any age. Levi develops every roll from his in-home darkroom (a.k.a. the bathroom).

The film starting pouring in, much of it from family members of parents or grandparents who had passed away, but also rolls without a connection — often found in old file cabinets or buried in the bottoms of desk drawers.

“Orphans” is what Levi calls these found rolls, which means he doesn’t know where they came from or who they belong to. All he has is what’s on the film… and that’s the best part.

“99% of what we get is just very innocent family photos, vacations, birthdays … lots of cats … lots of dogs,” Levi laughs.

Credit: Rescued Film Project
Credit: The Rescued Film Project
Credit: Rescued Film Project
Credit: The Rescued Film Project

But an innocent birthday party or day at the beach becomes a little more interesting, haunting almost, when you don’t know anything more.

“It’s really easy to get lost in the photos. I can spend hours looking at one image just trying to figure out what’s going on,” says Levi. “The thing that people don’t realize is they look at the subject of the photo. What I like to do is look at the setting, which tells you a lot more.”

These photographic mysteries are why the project exists.

“I’m trying to rescue these images, seek out the people they belong to and reconnect them. That’s the goal of this project.”

So far, The Rescued Film Project has reconnected one roll with its owner, thanks in part to the internet. “When we very first started our Instagram, one of our followers recognized someone in the photos, she tagged someone else, and then that person was like, ‘That’s my dad!’”

Levi’s plan is to reconnect more “orphan” rolls by releasing the entire archive online. He’s got 15,000 photographs stored in terabyte size hard drives in his home office. “Ideally, the goal would be to have an online and physical archive where people can keyword search and lend their own information to a photo — kind of like Wikipedia,” Levi says.

In the meantime, Levi has been trickling out photographs to social networks like Instagram, Facebook and Tumblr. Building an audience of thousands who are interested in the mystery of the photographs or just like the way they look.

“A lot of the images are damaged, have mold because they’ve been exposed to moisture, exposed to light. A lot of these rolls of film are three times older than I am,” says the 29-year-old project founder.

Credit: Rescued Film Project
Credit: The Rescued Film Project

For Levi, developing the film is easy — in a weekend he can develop over 100 rolls. (You can watch his process for developing the film here). But getting the film scanned to a digital format takes significantly more time. “I can do one day of processing and it’ll take me 4 or 5 months to scan them,” Levi says.

He starts by scanning the film at a high resolution, which can take upwards of 20 minutes per scan, then with photographic archival software, he’ll meticulously go through each photo, removing dust and scratches, but cognizant not to enhance or doctor the photographs. Levi believes the flares, cracks and burns in the photos are vital to the project.

“It tells a huge story of what the film has gone through, what it has survived. To me, what has happened to the film is almost as much of the story as the film itself.”

These stories have garnered the interest of more than just Instagram followers and Facebook friends. Recently, Levi took The Rescued Film Project to Washington, D.C., where he presented it to National Geographic. He’s also secured a grant to show the rescued photographs at art galleries.

But, the future of the project is firmly grounded in the past.

“I’m trying to get as much film as I can … Everyday film is degrading and eventually it’s just going to be gone. Then I’ll focus on the future.”

Note: See more rescued photography or donate your dusty rolls of film at rescuedfilm.com.

Photography courtesy of The Rescued Film Project