Week 34: Film Photography
In July, I dropped my phone at Fushimi Inari in Japan, disabling both sides of my camera.
The iPhone is too old to invest money in, so the camera will remain broken. Not being able to take selfies is not the hardest part; it’s living with the conditioned pinch that comes when I see something special and don’t photograph that is most trying.
Most of us are bred to whip out our phones at the slightest whisper of something out of the ordinary. A beautiful musical performance on a Montreal street corner? Capture it. A rare bear sighting in the Californian wilderness? Click.
I won’t spin this into a tale of becoming enlightened after dropping my phone because my lack of camera made me connect to the world around me organically. The truth is that it does suck and I do often wish I had a camera. But I also want to share some lessons that not having access to one has given me.
What makes a good photograph? And when should we take a beautiful moment in instead of capture it? Photography allows us to share flickers of time that may otherwise pass unnoticed; it lets us immortalize moments without being subject to the straight gaze of time and its tendency to bend the details.
The art has given me insight into what my grandparents looked like as children, into the landscape of my hometown one hundred years before I was born.
But beyond appreciating its practical use, my few months with no camera has pushed me to see some moments in real time as I would hope to capture them. Relying on my own eye to take in each piece of existence has given me impetus to think about lighting, and angles, and depth in a way I might not have, ironically, if I did have a tool to take all the photos I wanted.
In one of my weekly writing classes, each of us opens a book of photographs depicting women around the world. The first lady we each land on chooses us, we then flip to another page, and the second lady looking back at us also chooses us. We write a story about the two women.
Photographs leave out context. They let us storytell. Perhaps it’s not ideal, say, if I’m scrolling through social media and make a judgement about someone based on a picture. But when directed towards constructive creativity, it’s tool that sets the imagination ablaze.
I hope you saw this coming. Yes, not being able to rely on a camera in the Age of Instagram has made me a more present person. It’s true. I no longer feel the same urge to display a moment I experience or a scene I encounter. Although it’s sometimes there, the need to capture something beautiful for time everlasting has lessened.
Special moments happen without ever being captured, or perhaps even noticed. It has always been this way, and countless moments will forever pass this way even if lenses stay for all time. But this feeling of presence, this calmness found in living life on its own terms, also incentivizes me to want to capture a moment for what it is, or how it appears to me.
The idea of taking a picture to say I’ve been somewhere, or did some cool things, loses its sparkle. Photography becomes a way of practicing presence instead of evading it.
4. Film Photography
Because I don’t have a camera, I seek out a photography lesson on a late summer day in Seoul. The photographer, Minsik, has a film camera and will show me how to use it. I used to use those disposable film cameras until way back in the early aughts (do people actually use this term?) but other than that, I’ve never used a roll of film in my life.
Fun fact: one of these cameras is responsible for my first equine fall; when my mom took a picture of me riding an OTTB (off the track thoroughbred) at summer camp, the horse spooked at the click, I felt off, and he actually ran right over me. Even now, I feel anxious when someone nearby takes out a camera while I’m riding before I know whether the camera will make a sound or not.
We sit down for a drink. I order persimmon juice, I don’t know why it’s not a thing in the US. He orders coffee. He shows me how to adjust aperture, shutter speed, ISO, focus. A friend taught me these things on a digital camera in Greece, but now I remember only the sounds of the words. Their meanings elude me.
He shows me how to put in and take out film with a sample he has, and then he gives me the fresh roll. It’s scary. I feel its weight. I sense the value in its limited nature. I can’t just keep taking pictures, like I can with a digital camera. It has a lifespan that feels real.
I put it in, do all the twisty things, and click. Picture 0 is intended to be a placeholder for the light, but here it is.
We set out. I’m very protective of my film, only willing to spend it on precise objects at first. A traditional door - not part of everyday life, but a display in a model Korean house. I take three pictures in half an hour. I have 34 remaining.
My militant camera methods soften after the first hour to include precise angles of ordinary objects. Then they finally give way, breathing real life into the role of film. These experimental visions of unassuming locals - people, plants, doors - are my favorites when Minsik sends me the developed pictures a week later.
A Korean woman who sits in the same spot every day, all day. Minsik once went by during a downpour to see if she would be inside. She was on the other side of the road, on a bench with a little more overhang. Chilis spread out to dry in the courtyard of a home. A tricycle advertising amazing bibimbap. And my favorite: the bark of a very tiny plant. It’s the most experimental, the only photo that I took with the lens detached from the camera and flipped around.
We run out of time. I rush. I haven’t used 34, 35, 36, 37 yet. What will become of them?
It is concerning, so I turn to the super ordinary. The space a missing stone in the wall leaves behind. It is not too unlike what a heartbreak might look like; the mark a missing person’s presence makes, revealing a gap in the heart walls we spend a lifetime maintaining. I wonder if I would see more bricks behind the outer walls of my heart, and wonder when the true rawness would be exposed. I ask Minsik to take pictures of me, too.
For the first one, I sit on a bench. I want him to get the bench because it is overridden with shrubs, leaving a space for only one person to sit. I like juxtaposition. He doesn’t capture it, I realize when I look at the photos a week later. He is more interested in capturing the whisps of hair blowing across my face: “don’t touch your hair!”
I don’t like the end result because my nose looks as big as it actually is, but he did capture those strands. To each photographer his own.
A very juxtaposition-esque, temporal-esque mural comes into view at the spot where we will go our separate ways. Of course I love it. The age of the two people in the painting is obvious, but beyond that, one can almost see the glimmer of heart that the words speak to. Maybe an image can capture everything, maybe not. Maybe its beauty is in between the lines, maybe it’s in what eludes the lens. Maybe.
I find comfort in the shape of the man’s nose, at least. I’m not alone.