WHILE IN DECLINE in most parts of the world since the 90s, film photography is going through something of a revival in Saigon. Film is still inexpensive and relatively easy to come by for those who know where to look, and developing a standard roll of 36 exposures can set you back as little as VND30,000. That’s jaw droppingly cheap for anyone who has tried to get a roll of film developed in Sydney or London. Money matters aside, there’s an aesthetic to film that you really can’t get with digital: the grain, the oversaturated colors, and the timeless quality.
You may not know it, but the city is home to a budding film photography community. Stumble into one of the city’s many cafés devoted to this antiquated craft, and you’ll likely find SLR film cameras jostling for table space alongside ca phe sua das and selfie sticks. As an avid film photographer and owner of a few film cameras, today I’m visiting StunCam (308/39 Cach Mang Thang 8, D3) for the umpteenth time. Located off an alley in District 3, it’s an unlikely camera shop housed inside someone’s living room, and it may just be the best place in Saigon to acquire a working film camera.
“They call me when a new container comes in from Japan,” says Khoa, the owner. “They have a lot of cameras, sometimes a hundred in one shipment. I choose the ones that I want then I have to clean them up and do some repairs.” Often these cameras are not in the best of shape, most as old as the American War. Working closely with his friends, they lovingly restore and oil up the cameras back to pristine condition, ready to shoot again like it’s 1969. Working in tandem with a group of friends, all film enthusiasts like him, they raid the docks once a month when a new Japanese freighter pulls in.
Khoa started with digital until one day at the hardware market on Ly Thuong Khiet he saw a Canon AE-1 and spontaneously purchased it. After learning the mechanics of the film camera, he decided he didn’t like relying on a battery so switched to manual completely. His current go-to is a sturdy German-built Voigtländer Bessa.
“Nowadays young people are bored with digital,” he says. “They choose film to find something new in their pictures.” Just like the Jurassic film franchise, everything that was once considered old is becoming new again. Khoa connects with other film photographers through Facebook groups to refine their craft and organize get- togethers to “shoot the street light.” It’s very beautiful, he assures me. The consensus among the groups is “film just looks better.”
A Hundred Pictures
Co-founder of Mayhem clothing shop and a 35mm savant, Syka says “with digital, I feel like I have to take a hundred pictures of something before I can find the right one. It’s just a waste of time. However, when shooting film, you have to think carefully before you take a picture. The funny thing with film is when you get the picture it’s never what you expect. I mean, some pictures you take and you think it’s not gonna turn out good, and then you get the film back and it’s like, damn, perfect.”
Like Khoa, Syka also started out with digital, a compact point-and-shoot her mother gave her. “I didn’t want to jump into film until I had this friend who was showing off his new film camera. I asked to borrow it for a week to try it but it was a rangefinder camera so I didn’t know how to focus properly. When the pictures came back the quality wasn’t good. I wanted to do it again so a friend took me to a camera shop and this is it,” she says, pointing to her trusty Canon SLR on the table. “When I first started shooting, I set everything on automatic. The pictures came back, perfect, perfect, perfect, and I thought, ‘I can do it!’ But after two rolls on auto, I thought, ‘Okay, now it’s time to learn.’”
She taught herself the basics, getting inspiration from 1970s cinema, Flickr and Tumblr. “Sometimes in a movie I’ll just pause and look at the screen. you can get a good idea for what makes a good picture by doing that. Then once I became good with the measure and everything, I started on double exposure (where one image is bled into another by winding back the film and shooting over it again), and opening the camera for light leaks. you can do some pretty crazy things with film. But the most important thing is to just enjoy it.”
There’s an aphorism that I find holds true to what is an unpredictable craft: The beauty is in the flaws. That’s one thing to always keep in mind when starting out in film photography.
Most film photographers connect through Facebook and Flickr, but there are also groups that meet in cafés to swap cameras, and buy and develop film. With stocks of 35mm film diminishing in Kodak shops as the factories in Japan reduce their shipments because of slow demand, film is becoming harder to find. That is why it’s good to be in the know, and places like these are invaluable sources of information.
Fix Republic (30/1F Ngo Thoi Nhiem, D3) is the main hub, marked out by its assortment of Vespas and fixed wheel bicycles often lined up outside. The café is crammed with all manner of film photography hardware and memorabilia, a veritable museum of old cameras with faded Polaroids adorning the walls. They order a big box of film from Germany every other month, from which you can snatch up a roll for under VND50,000, and they’ll post the rolls to Hanoi for developing for about the same price.
Croplab (489/19 Huynh Van banh, Phu Nhuan) is a smaller and more spartan café. They develop in-house and can get your scanned negatives back the same day. It’s also a great place for a peek into the Saigon film photography scene, with someone always on hand to offer up a couple of pro tips to help jazz up your snaps.