FREE FILM: Building a crowd-sourced catalogue of contemporary America

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Since 2019, Worthless Studios has handed out thousands of free rolls of film to professional and amateur photographers across the US. Now, two new photobooks present an edit of the work

In August 2019, founder of Worthless Studios Neil Hamamoto and his team embarked on an American road trip in an Airstream-turned-darkroom. They travelled through 18 cities across the US, handing out around 1,500 free rolls of 35mm film. Their only request was that participants respond to the prompt ‘red, white, and blue’ through their photographs. By the end of the road trip in December 2019, they had received and developed over 40,000 images.

“Everyone has that romantic idea of the American road trip,” says Hamamoto. “I thought ‘why not really reach for the stars’ and road-trip while uncovering the many different voices and viewpoints of strangers across the country.” Instead of presenting an individual’s singular vision, FREE FILM: USA takes the tradition of the great American road trip and opens it up, collating the perspectives of   photographic communities across the country.

This is just one iteration of Worthless Studios’ ongoing project, FREE FILM. “Originally, the plan was to get the USA book out first, but the global landscape shifted, and it felt right to do another activation,” says Hamamoto. In June 2020, responding to Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement, the team sent out 200 rolls of film via mail, asking photographers to engage with the wave of anti-racism protests taking over the country.

© Yan William.
© Bob Rockford.

Now, an edit of both iterations of the project are published in two new photobooks: FREE FILM: USA and FREE FILM: JUNE 2020. The first presents a flow of black-and-white landscapes, portraits, and street photographs; a vision of America told through many lenses. The latter, co-edited with Andre D. Wagner, oscillates between moments of protest and contemplation, encapsulating the urgency that propelled this movement in recent history.

But, Hamamoto stresses it is important that these books are not regarded as the end-points of the project. “We are trying to create an unbiased collection of images,” says Hamamoto. “The toughest challenge was imposing myself as the editor, because it undermines the project, which is all about democratising photography and letting everyone’s voice be equal.” Alongside the publications is an online library, where viewers can browse the original image submissions themselves. 

In the introduction to FREE FILM: JUNE 2020, Andre D. Wagner writes: “Although I’m not a photojournalist, I’ve always had the conviction that I should be using this medium for what it does best, and sometimes that’s just describing what the world looks like.” Through the many lenses of photographers across the country, FREE FILM strives to do just this, producing a crowd-sourced catalogue of the shifting realities of contemporary America.

Marigold Warner

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.