Film photography is one of my favorite new hobbies. I hesitate to use the word “hobby” because I think claiming a hobby implies you’re only an amateur or novice at it. In its most traditional form, film photography consists of taking pictures on a camera by exposing frames on a film roll. While I don’t consider myself a photography expert, I take my film camera everywhere because it reminds me to search for things to appreciate in the moment, instead of waiting for a reason to take a picture to share online. Taking film pictures is a much more conscious and intentional process than taking pictures on my phone. Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and other popular camera-based apps have rendered taking pictures on my phone a thoughtless process. It’s so easy for me to use my camera any time of the day to check my appearance or take a picture of a flier for an event I saw on the Diag (that I think I’ll look at later but that will instead just take up storage on my phone). In contrast, taking out my film camera from the bottom of my bag, gesturing for my friends to scooch into the frame and adjusting the shutter and zoom to perfectly capture the setting is a much more deliberate process. It could also be that using a “real” physical camera whose only function is to take pictures adds purpose to the photo-taking process, in contrast to my phone which also serves as my calculator, notepad and my main mode of communication with friends and family. Taking film pictures requires an acknowledgment of the beauty of the moment, an appreciation of the candidness of everyday life and the decision to capture an image to add to your growing roll.
Two summers ago, I developed my first film roll. I had just finished using a disposable camera after deciding to join the recent revival of film photography that had been circulating the internet for almost a year. I developed pictures of the sunset from my last day of high school, trips to the lake with my best friends, my sister’s visits home and even moments when I was just by myself and felt like using my camera. I was reminded of countless memories that I hadn’t even remembered making, like when I started to go on picnics almost every week, my budding painting hobby and a questionable amount of boba runs. As I flipped through the remaining pictures, I felt a growing excitement, as I was unsure of what other forgotten moments I had collected. At the same time, though, I wondered how I could be living the same life as the one I saw on the roll, because I didn’t see the beauty in these moments until they had passed. It’s easy to think that your life is mundane and boring if it doesn’t meet the unrealistic standards we see on social media. I find myself looking through pictures from the influencers I follow, wondering how they manage to balance their work, social life and “making Instagram casual,” all while looking put together. My film pictures gave me a new perspective on this, as they presented memories that seemed casual in fleeting time but were incredibly meaningful to me as I looked back on them. Unlike my phone, my film camera took away my ability to see my pictures instantly after I had taken them. At first, I was impatient and restless at losing control of how the photos turned out, but the development process gave me time to continue living my life and absorb experiences with more awareness. When I got my roll developed, I was able to revisit these moments with a different mindset — I wasn’t worried or bothered about how I looked or how the background was captured anymore; all I cared for were the memories and the story that accompanied each picture. I was able to see that my picnic trips were my way of relaxing in nature, my painting hobby was a form of meditation for me and my countless boba runs became my favorite way to catch up with hometown friends and try new drinks.
After my first experience with a film camera, I kept up with my hobby and I looked forward to collecting more souvenirs. I stopped waiting for moments that were “good enough” to make my roll, and just took pictures of whatever I liked. Moments spent alone, such as reading outside, waiting for the sunset or redecorating my room, became more significant. I used to be incredibly uncomfortable with the idea of being alone and spending time with myself because it made me feel like I was missing out on what was happening around me, and I quite frankly didn’t know what to do with myself. I attribute a great deal of these feelings to social media and the pressure it casts on people to constantly indulge in everybody’s business but their own. There seems to always be a category to box people in based on their social media presence, and I hate the looming stress of having to curate your feed to somehow perfectly encompass the person you are. I learned, though, that our Instagram feeds are not a reflection of who we are, but of who we want to be. I have so many pictures saved of different “aesthetics” that I want to incorporate, and I realize that as these pictures add up, I start to lose my own sense of identity. I can’t keep up with the image of the “grunge,” “skater girl” or “y2k girl” aesthetics, but maybe I was never supposed to. These aesthetics and trends that circulate in and out of the internet are just a disguise for the identity crisis that’s always been inflicted on me. I remember having to add “brown girl” to all my Pinterest searches for hairstyles, clothes and prom dresses because I knew none of the trends I wanted to participate in would consider women of Color. The same goes for these new aesthetics on social media. Women of Color are rarely, if ever, included in these trends (even though they pioneer them), and regardless, I think it’s potentially harmful to impose another version of the self to assimilate ourselves to. In this way, taking film pictures when I’m by myself and can’t find a reason to take a picture other than the fact that I just felt like it is a form of healing for me. The images are a testament to myself that self-reflection and learning to be comfortable in my own presence are worthy of celebration — especially while the media tries to reinforce that women of Color are never good enough just as they are. While most of these memories will stay just between me and my film camera, I look back on each roll and am reminded that I don’t have to live my life following a copy-paste template from the internet — I can just be and that is enough.
After running through a few rolls, one of my friends gifted me a reusable film camera. Along with being a much more sustainable alternative to the disposables I had previously been using, my camera made taking film photos even more personalized than before. Unlike my previous disposable cameras — which I discarded after each of their rolls were developed — my reusable film camera gets to stay with me, and I seem to learn something new from it after every picture. I learned about film types, zoom settings and double exposure through trial and error, which was confusing, but filled me with pride when I finally understood what all the buttons meant. I even brought my camera with me when I traveled to visit my friend in California for the first time, and it gave me all the memories I captured during my journey to reminisce upon after. I cherished all of my roll — even the pictures with double exposure (when I shot the same roll twice on my film), pictures with my finger over the whole frame and even the ones where I zoomed in all the way when I was still figuring out my new camera. I’ve come a long way with the pictures I take, as well as with my knowledge and appreciation of film photography.
While I often feel the pressure to curate my social media presence to portray my life as eventful, cool or even mysterious, my film camera reminds me that spontaneous ice cream trips, reading alone at the park and even the flowers I bought for myself can still be honored. It’s nice to have a reminder now and then that while I may not have the capacity to live the same lifestyles I see online, I can embrace my own.
MiC Columnist Sahana Nandigama can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.