Saturday, February 15, 2014

Looking Through My Lens: Why I Take Pictures

In an era where people enjoy taking pictures on their iPhones, I’m still walking around with a manually adjustable film camera. I need to spend hours in the darkroom processing the negatives to make prints. My friends always ask me what keeps me enthusiastic in my photography and why I choose a film camera over a digital one. While I do like my high-performance digital camera, I see the world differently through a film camera.

Usually, I have to wait a few days – sometimes, even a month – to see what I’d shot. In the darkroom, under the dim orange light, I drop the photo paper into the developer, flipping it for about thirty seconds; the image would appear, spreading from the corners to the center. A minute later, I carry the fresh print in a tray under normal light, and I see a scene from the past.

At times, the negative may appear “boring”, but I’d go ahead and print it. To my surprise, there are details I hadn’t noticed, either when taking the picture or in the darkroom: an old woman with her face raised to the afternoon sunshine as a man passes by, walking his dog; students in a blur, jogging down a path; customers, at a restaurant, with the soft glow of light bulbs overhead. The people and the harmony of these scenes make me realize the eternal appeal of Charlottesville, my town, and why Thomas Jefferson chose to make his home here so long ago.


Documenting a moment of happiness

(Photo: Shabai Chen)

As a beginner in film photography, I felt frustrated whenever I’d ruin a roll of negatives. Later, I learned photography is a personal experience: the negatives may be ruined, the positives may be lost, but one’s memories occupies forever a space in one’s heart.

Last Spring Festival, I met an old Chinese woman with her five-months-old granddaughter. She was helping take care of the infant for her own daughter. The baby’s name was Jiu Yue, which meant September in Mandarin; we had a long conversation, and I took a roll of black and white pictures of them. Unfortunately, it didn’t come out the following month, and I nearly cried when I looked at the blank negatives.

I sat on a bench outside the studio, holding my camera and feeling its weight, trying to find meaning in this format. Finally, I told myself, that although I lost the physical representation, I’d met a nice woman and a cute baby, had a sweet conversation. I felt warm when I thought of the beautiful afternoon. I still had my memory; the only pit was that I couldn’t share it with others.

A photograph doesn’t show the truth; it’s first and foremost there to show you what the photographer sees. An example: on Tuesday, April 16, 2013, the University of Virginia’s Chapel bell tolled 32 times at 9:43 a.m., once for each of the victims in the April 16, 2007 shooting at Virgina Tech and for the victims of the bombing at the Boston Marathon a day prior. I sat in the garden, counting the bells; looking through the trees and through my lens, I focused on the bells and documented that moment to 1/125th of a second.


The author at an art exhibition

(Photo: Shabai Chen)

Photography is not about aperture, shutter speed, or framing; to me, it’s about life. It slows down my rapid pace, reminding me of the meaning of life and that it is wonderful. I enjoy not only the process of making prints in the darkroom, but also matting and compiling a portfolio – all those moments, memories, stories, and surprises together. My portfolio is about me: about walking in the forest, lying on the grass, looking at my shadows, seeking soft lights, and listening to my own voice.

Life is like photography: we develop from the negatives.

Recently, I did what my teacher told me in my first class: turn off your phone while taking pictures. Then, I turned on a peaceful world with sky peeping through the trees, outlining the delicate edges of the leaves; a little boy with a balloon; blooming flowers with morning dew still on them. That was what I saw through my lens.


Little boy with balloon

(Photo: Shabai Chen)

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