Photographer develops film alongside sense of sentimental self

Although junior and senior year of high school weren’t the greatest years of my life, I fondly look back at them through grainy, green-tinted photographs of silly moments and big milestones. Dramatically contrasted images of my closest friends remind me of the exclamations of unpleasantness that followed the violent, temporarily vision-splotching zaps of photographic flash I imposed upon them; slightly tilted views of the streets of Bangkok, my hometown, cast me back to passersby born in a generation (or two) before mine, asking, “Hey, is that really a disposable camera?”

Although I was aware that I’d caught the “analog bug,” I guess I didn’t really expect it to stay. But here I am, typing up this article on the left side of my desk, with my single-lens reflex (SLR) 35mm film camera on my right. My back faces my gallery wall of film photos; my mini fridge, also behind me, stores multiple rolls of unused film, while my drawers contain film negatives—sleeves of transparent, dark brown strips of memories whose shapes and outlines you can only slightly see when you hold them up against the light.

Wow. I’m becoming that film photography-obsessed person, I often groan to myself. My self-loathing isn’t completely unjustified, I don’t think; Instagram hashtags like #35mm and #filmisnotdead are brimming with literally millions of posts, and even massive pop culture icons like David Dobrik have hopped aboard the analog train (see @davidsdisposable, his account of over 2 million followers dedicated to just disposable camera photos). I recognize the fad film photography seems to be morphing itself into, and I’m aware of the pretentiousness the born-in-the-wrong era, old-time aesthetic can sometimes exude. But I can’t deny how much I still look forward to hearing the incredibly satisfying, deep click of the shutter every time I advance the lever of my film camera and take a shot. I always get giddy whenever I rip open the paper sleeve and pore over the 4×6 sheet of thumbnails of my film scans, returned to me by a stranger from the photo developing store who got to re-experience my memories even before I did.

The vivid greens of Sunset Lake last spring were captured and accentuated by the writer’s SLR film camera. The film photography accentuates shades she didn’t recall seeing with her naked eye. 

In a video discussing her thoughts on social media use, YouTuber-filmmaker Ashley Rous, aka bestdressed, shares how she feels like she has FOMO for her own life. In a world where our identities often exist as and are hinged upon who we are online, where we spend countless hours curating feeds and matching themes, and where there is an unending pressure to document and share everything that happens to us with the devices in our pockets at all times, it seems like we have come to care more about capturing those happenings and experiences, and preserving them for our future selves, rather than enjoying them for what they are, as they happen in the moment.

Although I can imagine how resonant Ashley’s reflections might be to fellow Gen Z folk, her points strike me for how true they ring outside of the scope of social media. I don’t consider myself much of a social media user (I haven’t changed my Facebook profile picture since 2016), but I would call myself an avid documenter. I hold on to boxes upon boxes of paper memorabilia, and have a hard time parting with used post-its and even receipts whose ink has entirely rubbed off. In many ways, my collections of scribbled notes and unwritten postcards have served more as opportunities to re-access the past, rather than items I actively choose to keep for the present moment. And so perhaps my indulgence into the world of analog photography is unsurprising—it, too, creates and continually craves a nostalgia, except of a kind that never really existed. 

I didn’t grow up with disposable or film cameras; photos of my toddler self were taken with digital point-and-shoots, the resolutions of which would be laughable today. Digital photographs are immediately viewable, and often automatically stored in the Cloud. Film, on the other hand, fails to offer that instant gratification and effortless safekeeping, requiring instead an immense amount of patience while the photos get developed, and a decent amount of organization of both physical negatives and digital scans.  And yet, I persist in lugging around my Canon A-1 and waiting for my memories to only be accessible after they undergo chemical processing. When they finally do, and are returned to me, they appear to be tinted with shades I don’t recall them having when I initially experienced them: slightly warmer skin tones, more vivid greens, muted pastel casts…nostalgia.

Bangok’s buildings stand tall and tilted through the camera lens, their edges sharpened by the film aesthetic. Chunnananda’s antiquated camera caught the attention of an older passerby.

Perhaps I, and many others in this era, are finding ourselves casting back to the analog world because it quite literally filters our memories with a more sentimental visual reality—one that tugs a little harder at our heartstrings, and makes what we captured feel a little more special and commemorative. The film ‘look’ must mean, or do, something; Huji Cam, an app that provides a filter reminiscent of film photographs, claiming to “[make] your moments as precious as the feelings of analog film with old memories,” boasts over 10,000,000 downloads on the Play Store alone.

But perhaps we’re also drawn to analog because of how it re-routes our relationship to the experience of capturing memory. I know I find myself choosing what I capture a lot more carefully when I have a limited number of exposures. I’m compelled to make every shot count. I take time adjusting the aperture and shutter speed, reaching into the depths of my YouTube tutorial-watching and photography blog-reading memory banks as I flick the dials on the top-right of the camera. I practice patience while I wait for my memories to be processed, or try to, at least (I inevitably refresh my inbox by the hour after exactly two days have passed since dropping my film off at the development store). I cross my fingers and truly, deeply hope the photos don’t turn out with too much grain or crappy lighting, both of which would mean a more or less irreversible corrosion of my recorded past.

Chunnananda’s friend stands in the summer sun among a mesh of buildings and wires in the small side streets of Koenji, Tokyo. The medium sharpens the contrast between dark and light pigments. 

Through all of that, it almost feels like a crime for me to deny that my film photos are just as (un)special as their digital equivalents. Although the nostalgic worlds they create may be fictitious, or at least imbued with a sentimentality that is arguably disingenuous (being merely a chemically-driven, socially-favored, digitally-replicable, subtle coloring effect), it preserves the things I capture by doing them justice in a way that would not be afforded by using my digital tools. Maybe so many of us are turning back to these outdated means because they offer us a more involved, powerful way to remember. And this is an almost irresistible offer, given how much our digital, online selves threaten to erase the specialness that is the experience of memory, while also living fully today.

All photos courtesy of Am Chunnananda.

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