Losing a Month in Photos

Reflections on Near-Loss and Letting Go

I have been cultivating a bad habit of finishing projects months after they were started — a Montevideo article four months later, a Perú video eight months after, and now, finishing writing about a near-loss from four months ago. I began writing thinking I’d lost the film, and finish now knowing it is saved.

I am sitting on a bench in Olin, turning the little nob on my film camera to wind my roll of photos. 36 photos of the month, each frame retreating into its plastic cocoon to soon be developed. My arm feels less tension winding than it remembered, but I just keep winding until there can’t possibly be any film left. I open the back to check and — Fuck. I snap it shut.

The roll has detached from the canister.

The glimpse of naked film haunts me. The afternoon light streaking in from windows, that wonderful sun-setting, makes me regret. Did it expose the pictures already? Fuck-fuckety-fuck.

In February I promised myself I would spend some time with my Konica. It is a proper, steel-bodied film SLR with which I produced just one meager roll of photos in two years and collected a lot of dust. But it was time to be picked back up.

For so long I have reduced photography to a small rectangular screen and the tap of a thumb — the iPhone. What was missing was not from a nostalgia for an older technology in renunciation of all the smart phones of the world. What was missing was the practice of patience, putting my whole body into the work, remembering that there are so many different ways to make beautiful photos other than with just convenience — swipe, tap.

A month of film later — I have lost everything. The detached roll is overexposed.

Then, I sighed to asked myself again, What have I lost? I have spent the past month capturing nothingness, I thought.

A week later, my anthropology professor shared a story. She had been finishing a manuscript, workshopping it and working with revisions before the fast approaching deadline. Over the weekend, she was able to steal a precious chunk of afternoon for uninterrupted work. To get herself into the mood, she made herself a hot beverage before the productivity would start pouring out — and then the mug spilled. The computer dies. The hard drive dies.

Months of revision and work — gone. In my notebook I scribbled, digital loss.

I could not help but think of my own loss, albeit of a much lesser importance and gravity. The false permanency of our digital age.

Thinking about my roll of film again, I asked a friend — what have I lost? She asked in return, “the memories?”

But I remember all those photos. I can remember the moments which I asked my friends to be candid. I remember my first shot of Eaton. Candas at Harvard Square. Sean at DPH. Justine and Olivia, faux-candid, outside of the SEC in the February snow. Hayley and Dan laughing outside the Chapel. These memories are not lost. The camera gave my a tool of an excuse to stage and slow down moments for capture — the moments happened, destroyed not by lack of memory, but by the pure physics and chemistry of sunlight on film.

I remember the horror and humor I simultaneously felt. Perhaps the experiment was not to renounce my iPhone photography fora month, but to learn to “capture” only to let it all go. Perhaps the value laid not in the photos, but the excuse to stop and consider the places and people in front of the lens, the laughter and irony in instructing friends to be candid, in remembering more vividly the time that was spent and shared.

Two weeks later. At Gallery Kayafas in South Boston, I met a photographer from New York. We were both there for the reception of a photography exhibition by an Israeli photographer we both knew — him from 10 years ago, me from 5 years ago. Our conversation was held in a gallery space of black and white photographs Yoav took during his two years in Tel Aviv. They were all film photos — carefully curated out of hundreds and hundreds of negatives, portraits he developed after his teaching hours.

This photographer from New York teaches digital, but at heart he, too, is a dedicated film photographer. He understands film. Digital, he says, gets all translated into pixels. It’s no longer the same medium anymore.

Doesn’t film get translated, too? I ask.

“Yes,” he says, “but it’s working with light.” Fundamentally, film is a series of photochemical reactions. That’s something he can see and create with his hands. The pictures emerge through these physical and chemical manipulations, a process so much more embodied than a digital, pixel, translation.

Yet in what seems like working more directly and intimately with the elements — light on film — there is also a more heightened awareness of loss, a loss more embodied. “Do you ever fear that?” I ask.

“Yes, always,” and he smiles, “that’s what brings the excitement, no?”

I tell him about my Konica and my acceptance of loss. “It’s probably not all lost,” he suggests. Maybe the last few photos are lost — but rest is still salvageable.

What I had accepted as loss turned out to be a healthy roll of photos. It seems like such a frivolous up-and-down of emotions — just around a random roll of film of questionable artistic merit! But maybe it can be a small lesson in letting go for the future — lost love, failure, death, and loss that I can let go like a roll of film, and maybe even learn that even then, maybe it’s still salvageable.

Thank you so much for reading + sharing your thoughts. You can find more of me on Instagram, at my poetry blog, and at my website. Want my articles in your inbox? — subscribe here.