Cover Photo: Balázs Benjamin/Pexels

A look into the explosion of this nostalgic trend and its endurance among the younger generation in Malaysia and around the world

The return of film photography has been a long time coming. It all started paradoxically with the launch of photo-sharing app Instagram in 2010, stoking a collective fascination with the vintage film aesthetic with nostalgic frames and filters, such as Earlybird, 1997 and Apollo.

These days, it’s all about unfiltered and unposed authenticity but in the pursuit of this, many have turned to the original film camera, including celebrities such as the Hadid sisters, Kendall Jenner, Jacob Elordi, and Cole Sprouse. Gigi Hadid even has a page dedicated to her developed 35mm film called Gi’sposables, in which she shares candid, grainy photos of her A-List friends backstage at fashion shows or the Met Gala, notorious for their no phone policies.

The film photography trend exploded in popularity among the youth at the start of the pandemic last year—along with the Gen Z revival of the disco and y2k era. Many dug out their parents’ old Pentax and Olympus cameras to try their hand at this previously-dying art.

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Chin Koon Yik, owner of photography lab and film camera store, Bang Bang Geng in Publika, even started an initiative called the Pandemic Time Capsule, in which he encouraged people to keep their film in a container to be developed once the pandemic is well and truly over. "When I set up my shop, I wanted to promote the love for photography. Right now, there are lots of people out of work and young graduates struggling to find jobs, I hope that they will be able to look back at these tough times one day and feel proud to have survived it," he explains.

In a virtual interview with Tatler, the hobby shop owner, whose film photography journey started with collecting vintage lens for his digital cameras, expresses his joy at seeing new enthusiasts join the dedicated community of hobbyists, amateurs and professionals in Malaysia.

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Film photography is the most affordable and most accessible way of experiencing history. It is the traditional way of making pictures.
Chin Koon Yik

At the same time, he refrains from showing too much excitement. “I have definitely seen the community grow. It doesn’t seem to be slowing down but I am concerned that it might not last,” he adds. “I have seen a similar phenomenon with the Lomography film photography. That trend only lasted around five years…”

However, the youth’s embrace of film photography in a pandemic-stricken world might not be a fleeting fascination but emblematic of a general shift towards a new era of slowness in all aspects, from sustainable fashion to hydroponics and urban gardening. We speak with young Malaysians—a Gen-Z and millennial—who have picked up film photography during the pandemic to weigh in and share some of their favourite shots.

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For 20-year-old Zoe Yap, film photography is all about finding meaning in the everyday. “It's easy to take several pictures on our phones or digital cameras, you don't think that much about it. With film, there are limited shots per roll (which aren’t necessarily very cheap), so you tend to think carefully before you click that button. You have to make each precious shot count!” she says. “The entire process, from the first click of the button to waiting for your film rolls to develop, is deliberate and meaningful.”

“The beauty of it is you can never know or make sure that you get the ‘perfect’ picture. There is no guarantee of crystal clear images. There'll be little flaws and mistakes you make along the way but that's what makes each picture so special.”

And while she will never abandon digital and phone cameras, she is also confident that film photography—for all that it has to offer—is here to stay.

Meanwhile, Jason Tan admits that while he picked up his father’s old Olympus camera to fill the time and because “the aesthetic looked really cool”, he has become fully obsessed with the intricacies of film photography. A full-time accountant at PwC, he spends most of his free time on weekends roaming around the city to document everything, from his hang outs with friends to stray animals and modern architecture.

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I love figuring out the process behind creating the perfect picture
Jason Tan

"I love figuring out the process to creating the perfect picture. I’m slowly learning the different techniques, from adjusting aperture and shutter speed to finding the best composition and expression. It really is a craft,” says the self-taught photographer.

“More importantly, I've also been able to bond with my father about his old camera and hearing about the stories behind his favourite photos."

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Hearing the shining testimonies from these youths, Chin shares some tips for beginners who are looking to start shooting film. “You can start with disposable cameras and follow the instructions on the back—they cost less than a box of Musang King!”

“Film photography has been around for a whole century so there is plenty of information available online,” he says. “If it’s too overwhelming, especially when it comes to the darkroom side, the short cut is to find an uncle like me who can guide you!”

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He also encourages the older generation to pick up their old cameras and get them serviced. “Never be afraid to take up this hobby. Photography came late to me and it has changed my life,” he shares. “These days, I clock around 9,000 steps for my 1.5-hour photo walk with my buddies on Saturday mornings before I open my shop. Borrowing a phrase from a former shooting buddy, Robin Wong, it’s shutter therapy,” he says.

“Spending time with good company and knowing that my children and their children will be able to hold my legacy through my photos in their hands helps me achieve ikigai (a Japanese concept to reach happiness and balance by finding meaning to life)."

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And if they find any forgotten undeveloped or orphan rolls inside, he encourages them to stop by at Bang Bang Geng to get them printed.

Just last month, I helped a man in his late 30s develop photos from his old negatives and rolls with his wife who had sadly passed. It was a joy to be able to give him those memories to cherish.
Chin Koon Yik

Closing the interview, Chin emphasises the power of film photography in connecting people in a time where distance and isolation have become the norm, both in capturing memories and creating moments, such as politely and safely approaching elderly strangers for their photos and providing them the prints.

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