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Rescuing History’s Forgotten Frames

For me, photography has always been about anticipation. Each time I unwind a reel of film I get the same thrill—the slippery strip slides off the spool, and in that moment I hold my breath as I raise my freshly developed roll up to the light to see what the negatives show me. Over 70 years ago, during World War II, an American soldier photographed 31 rolls of film and never developed them. Can you imagine unlocking a time capsule of the world as it was during that period? Photographer Levi Bettwieser, creator of the Rescued Film Project, essentially got that opportunity when he discovered the unidentified soldier’s rolls in 2014.

The rigorous and exhilarating process of developing these mysterious rolls was documented in a short film that I came across while curating content for National Geographic’s Short Film Showcase. This documentary brought back memories of my days as a photography student in college, with long afternoons spent in the darkroom and meditations on historical icons. As I watched Bettwieser’s film, I could sense his thrill at holding a roll taken from one of the most significant times in modern history. And I wondered, what if I never ended up finding out who took the pictures? With this in mind, I spoke with Bettwieser about the Rescued Film Project and his reaction to seeing the unknown soldier’s photographs for the first time.

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Location unknown; possibly Reims, France

RACHEL LINK: How did the Rescued Film Project begin?

LEVI BETTWIESER: The project started about two years ago, but has only been public for about six months. It started mostly out of curiosity on my part. I often frequent thrift stores, and as a film photographer I would always cruise by the camera section. After a while I started noticing that some of the cameras still contained rolls of film, and since I could process the film myself for relatively free, I started buying the cameras. Once I got a batch of about 30 to 40 rolls (which took me around four months) I processed it. From there, I was so intrigued by the photos that I start actively pursuing lost and forgotten rolls of film outside my local community.

RACHEL: What’s the most interesting part of the process for you?

LEVI: The most interesting part is right after I pull the processed negative out of my tank. It’s dripping water and wetting agent, but I hold it up to the light to try and figure out what, if anything, is on that negative.

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Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania

RACHEL: How did you happen upon the undeveloped film from the World War II soldier?

LEVI: The World War II film I purchased from a camera reseller in Mentor, Ohio. He purchased it at a live auction and sold it to me.

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Chamarande Castle grounds, France

RACHEL: What was it like seeing these images for the first time?

LEVI: It’s hard to explain the emotions that were rushing through me. It was a mix of excitement, respect, and mortality.

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A transport ship either en route to or returning from France

RACHEL: Were there any particular photographs that really struck you emotionally?

LEVI: Yes, it’s the very first one we reveal in the video. It’s a wide shot of some kind of religious service. The majority of the scene is a sea of soldiers facing away from the camera, participating in the service. But on the left-hand side of the frame, there’s a man who stands out because he’s wearing bright white, while everyone else is [in] gray. He’s standing on a platform above the crowd and staring right into the lens of the photographer’s camera.

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Boston Harbor

RACHEL: What kind of impact do you hope the Rescued Film project has on others?

LEVI: I think it’s really hard to interpret what individuals feel when looking through the archive. I think everyone has a different reaction and to different images. I just hope that anyone viewing the archive feels the same sense of respect for the images [that] I do. I also hope that it helps them realize the importance of photography to our own individual histories. Each photo we take is a mark against time in which we’re saying, “I exist.” The images in the archive, while orphaned, tell a story much greater than any one of us will ever understand.

Find out more about the Rescued Film Project here.

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