I’ve always had a habit of losing pictures by the hundreds on my phone. Either I would acquire a new phone, or it would break from hitting concrete, the screen blasted to pieces. In hindsight, I should’ve backed my photos up to the cloud, but it never occurred to me until they were gone. How many moments were simply gone in a blink of an eye, never to be recovered? I’ve lost countless photos from middle and high school, videos of friends and family– all gone. In contrast, when I looked at my family’s photo albums, I was glad to find the negatives stored safely in their yellow corner-bent Kodak envelopes. If the printed photos were damaged, as long as my parents had the negatives, they’d be able to reprint them again and again. Wanting this same assurance that my images could be replaced, I bought a camera and film rolls to recreate this process. It was also the moment when I began to feel differently about my mother’s father, Papa Cancho. We were indifferent towards one another while he was alive, but he was a photographer who took many pictures of many moments.
Buying a film camera isn’t easy. It can be expensive. I was able to find a Canon AE-1 film camera, complete with a flash attachment, handbook, and original case, on eBay for about $150. eBay is one of your best options in finding an old camera, other than thrift stores or specialty camera shops. If by chance you find a garage sale, you might luck out and find one there, too.
I consulted my friend on where she got her film developed. She recommended The Old School Photo Lab, Film Photography Project, and The Dark Room. Their services are clear, quick, and affordable. Most commercial photo developers like CVS or Walmart don’t give you back your negatives and the pictures are often tinted pink. It would be better to stick to digital pictures when it comes to them instead.
But how did I learn to use my camera and take proper photos? No one in my family knew, nor was I able to cash out money for lessons. So, I went on YouTube and found the online instructor KingJvpes and a plethora of lessons. Offering information about aperture setting, the Sunny16 lighting rule, and the types of film available, his videos are easy to understand and fun to watch. He reviews cameras and films, showing their finish, color saturation levels, optimal environments, and links on where to buy them. His website has a blog with interesting posts to read on these and other topics.
I dedicated a notebook to these tips and tricks. But it was applying those notes that made the task daunting. I had no idea how these photos, these cues for memory, would turn out. They could turn out too dark, too light, or not show up at all. It was the process of photographing, of creating visual sound bites, that made me persevere. I didn’t mind if they came out bad or good. I merely wanted to see how they turned out. I wanted to see what I captured and how well it captured what I wanted it to. Pieces in a collage of photos that would help me remember these moments.
But how does this connect with my grandfather, Papa Cancho? He had a passion for photography. Even when his hands began to shake and his eyesight grew worse, he would always look through albums or point to a particular spot outside and say “Si, eso es una photo.” Yes, that right there is a photo. I never connected with my grandfather. I was never interested in his life, nor was he engaged with me. But I knew that when he had to close down his photography studio during the 80s, it took something for him.
His place was a little school supplies store with an attached photography studio in Lima, Peru. People would come in and out, buying pencils and photos and maybe some candy too. Business slowed when the Shining Path, a domestic terrorist group in Peru, started making roads unsafe. The fear of having his store raided by police or terrorist affiliates pushed him to close.
So when I showed my mother my camera, she instantly said that her father had cameras like mine when she was a child. He had tripods, backdrops, lights, furniture, silk flowers, and traditional costumes. She was forbidden from entering the darkroom in the shop, though being the youngest, she would enter regardless and wander around the drying pictures. Almost all the photos of them as children were taken by her father.
I knew that when my mom was holding and inspecting my camera, she remembered her father. For three days I photographed around my house. I took pictures of my mother cooking, my father folding laundry, my cat sleeping in sunbeams, my old dog begging for food, and my brother doing homework. But it was my grandmother on whom I spent half my roll, taking photos of her outside while she sat in a wicker chair.
She saw the camera and straightened her back, mouth in a flat line and chin tilted up. Her shoulders relaxed and she folded her hands in her lap. She told me, “Cancho had many cameras like that. He liked taking pictures of me.” I nodded, not knowing what to say. After that, I continued to take more pictures outside, until I had to wind the film and load in a new roll.
My grandfather, from what I knew of him, didn’t have a happy life. But he lived in the manner he wanted. Sadly, I had no relationship with him. He wasn’t affectionate, having never called me by my name. I was always ‘girl.’ He cared more about his land inheritance in Peru, and spent his time making trips up mountains and cliff sides to plant and harvest corn nuts. He was a man of the land, and his principle, as he often said, he was to live and die on his own land. To me as a child, he was merely Papa Cancho, mom’s dad who was going on a plane ride back to Peru. He ended up staying there for the last decade of his life, maintaining only minimum contact with us. As he wanted, he died on his land in summer 2020.
I could say more about Papa Cancho — perhaps about how he had an affair, how he didn’t let my mother go to college, or how he was blamed for his mother’s death when he was born. None of those events are captured in photos, but they happened. They don’t come in the context of the photographs he took of parties and ones of him sitting out on the doorstep. Photographs define and identify, but they also exclude whatever is outside the frame. Photos can aid us in remembering things, though they may also act as substitutes for more complex memories. They can warp and obscure memory, showing us the past through rose-tinted glasses.
Now, though, I do imagine how Papa Cancho would react and what he’d tell me if he saw my camera. I think he would say, “Hey girl, take a photo of that.” He’d probably take my camera on walks and claim it as his own for a while and ask me to develop the film. He’d probably find that happiness he lost and remember his lost studio while taking photos around the house.