Vintage images are omnipresent on social media in the digital age, misleading us that film photography has never gone out of fashion in Vietnam. What makes those photos are not only art-oriented photographers but also a unique labor and material market in operation. Film photography is something that Instagram’s square-format and Polaroid-filter images could not emulate back then.
Due to its limited popularity in Vietnam in the 80s and 90s, analog photography earned local skilled practitioners a generous income. However, the fall of film photography in the late 2000s plunged many workers into a financial predicament. That said, the end of the film era marked the advent of new professions among those who longed to keep the aesthetics of nostalgia alive.
The golden age
It took my parents, who worked as civil servants, their two-month salary to buy a Canon Prima Zoom 76, an affordable film camera, in the middle of 2000.
East Kodak Co., one of the world’s largest film and camera manufacturers, announced early that year that its revenue for Q4 of 1999 beat its estimate. The company’s total revenue increased by 7% in 1999 compared to the previous year despite negative financial indicators during its film-to-digital transition and competition with Fujifilm.
The heyday of analog photography in Vietnam lasted for a decade until 2000. Aesthetics asides, low-cost film photography was supposed to be the moneymaker of local image solution providers back then. Owning a point-and-shoot camera like my parents’, users cared little about its aperture or shutter speed.
Such a fully automatic camera with digital minilab technology for faster film processing assured its users that they just did the shots and a beautiful photo album would follow two days later. After all, what average consumers cared about was recording their children’s growth and family memories at a low cost.
According to Daniel Carp, Kodak’s CEO during 1999-2005, around 40 million photos worldwide were scanned through Noritsu’s minilabs during the last six weeks in 1999. Vietnam was pretty much on the front line of the trend. As the country opened its market in 1986, it became easier for local people to sell and purchase photography equipment.
Le Thi Thu Hong ran one of the most famous studios providing photography apparatus and services in Hanoi after the 1986 reform. Her studio set up the first film lab in northern Vietnam in 1989, growing into a company named Viet Hong and starting its partnership with Kodak Thailand four years later. And this cooperation ushered in the golden age of film photography in Vietnam.
After the US embargo on Vietnam was lifted, Viet Hong was authorized by Eastman Kodak Co. to be the official distributor of film and camera products in northern Vietnam. The company recorded a revenue of around VND 73 billion in 2000. Private-owned photo studios and freelance practitioners in tourist destinations grew en masse around the same time.
A dynamic film photography market gradually lost its luster and became a thing of the past in the early 21st century. Kodak’s missteps in its digitalization caused a prolonged severe recession in 2005, and the photo tech giant filed for bankruptcy in 2013. The film became an element of nostalgia.
The temporary demise of film photography
Thanh started working as a journalist for Nhi Dong Newspaper in 2000 and has gotten involved in film photography since then. Though digital cameras were already available in the market, film cameras were more popular in the first half of the 2000s due to their affordable prices.
At the onset, digital cameras were a luxury few Vietnamese could afford. Some bought it during their business trip abroad. A Canon PowerShot 600, launched in 1996 and could write images to a hard disk drive, cost USD 969. Therefore, film photography was more economical for journalists, as they could send their films to a studio and get photos back quickly. Such comfort and convenience, however, did not last long.
Kyocera, a Japanese-based company, introduced its VP-210 to the public in May 1999, claiming it to be the first phone with a camera available in the market. This 300-dollar phone ushered in the era of economical digital photography. By the end of 2000, the Japanese electronics giant Sharp introduced its J-SH04 mobile phone, which could send photos over the cellular network.
Inevitably, what followed was the demise of traditional film photography. As many of my interviewees recounted, film photography only served as a cheap means of documenting weddings and funerals in the 2010s.
Thanh recalled that film photography, during 2007-2010, was kept alive by a small group of film enthusiasts, fed on passion as film professionals and traditional studios were in a terrible predicament.
European countries faced the same scenario as the instant film and camera manufacturer Polaroid declared bankruptcy. Instant film lovers continued buying its products until they could no longer do so. Thankfully, a Polaroid’s former employee founded Impossible Project and purchased some manufacturing equipment from the old company to continue producing instant films. Instant cameras, therefore, avoided becoming electronic waste to be moved between warehouses across the globe.
Meanwhile, Vietnamese photo studios started eliminating their minilabs to focus on digital photography services during 2009 – 2010. This sad fact surprisingly paved the way for many popular film labs today. Some photography enthusiasts bought and even asked for free no-longer-needed gear from those studios to set up their labs. Among them was Thanh’s AEG Lab, founded in 2011. AEG (meaning Brothers’ Group) set out to serve a small group of film hobbyists in the first place.
Though Kodak’s downfall seemingly sealed the tragic fate of film photography worldwide, a small group of nostalgic people fought to keep this old-school industry alive in Vietnam. They took advantage of old minilabs instead of importing them from China at over USD 10,000 per unit. They also bought color film developing chemicals for the C-41 process from imported industrial chemical dealers while acquiring hand-carried black-and-white films and processing chemicals.
Some film shooters sought to be independent of the film lab. For example, they ordered hundred-foot-long rolls of film on eBay, split them into shorter rolls, processed films manually using a portable darkroom kit, and scanned negatives with a digital camera.
According to some experienced manual film processors, developing film at home is by no means a practical option. They will be exposed to harmful chemicals while images scanned through a digital device have lower quality than those by minilabs.
A market for nostalgia
As film photography was doomed to disappear from the scene, its “old school” visual quickly became popular in the age of Instagram. As you might notice, Instagram’s old logos resembled an instant camera. Back in the day, this platform only allowed square-format photos while providing its users with a set of film-like filters. Following Instagram’s success, film-mimicking effects became a trend on VSCO, a photo editing app, and numerous other smartphone applications.
Project Humans of Hanoi is well-known for its nostalgic-vibe photos of Hanoi. Interestingly, that film photos became its content material was a mere coincidence, as Tuan, the project’s founder, explained. He found that film-based images produced by a scanner were very different from digital ones adding film-mimicking filters. Humans of Hanoi’s unexpected success was one of the contributing factors to the resurgence of analog photography in Vietnam. Human nostalgia fueled the revival of the local film market. And vintage visuals of a modern Hanoi have since become iconic in film photography.
Nostalgia in film photography can be attributed to three factors. Shooting with film is a matter of luck, leaving you with suspense as you can’t immediately review what you just captured. You will also experience delayed gratification. This latency results from waiting until your last frame of a film roll before sending it to the film lab and waiting a few more days for photos to be delivered via Dropbox. Finally, clicking to see the finished products, according to Marketplace author Janet Nguyen, feels like unboxing Christmas presents. This thrill is the determining factor in consumption.
Hieu, an IT engineer, recounted that he turned to film photography when it hit him that he had no special hobbies despite his financial abundance. Manual film processing fills him with anticipation and fosters his meticulous and patient attitude. Also, holding negatives containing regular image frames on a long plastic strip satisfies him like a gift is placed in his hands.
As the film market expands, film development is getting faster as consumers’ growing demands are met with the birth of more film labs. Film processing speed and the number of developed images are closely correlated with how much this hobby costs. In film photography, a momentary delay can be compensated by its social values.
A social account drenched in nostalgic vibes impresses others that you have good taste. And that’s how the commodity market has revived a seemingly old-fashioned pastime.
Old cameras’ journey to be back to the shelves
Behind seemingly glamorous photographic practitioners is a market for nostalgia operated by second-hand camera dealers and shops scattered around the world.
My old camera collection has grown in number during my interviews with some second-hand camera sellers. What induced me to shell out for those old good things was not merely their mechanical designs we can hardly find these days, but their unique stories.
Second-hand dealers bought old cameras at a low price. In some countries, disused film cameras are classified as electronic waste. Film-shooting bloggers in the early 2010s advised beginners to buy their first film camera at about 5-10 dollars. It was easy to find one in that price range but less for a high-quality one. In doing so, they would equip themselves with experience in camera selection and market insights before acquiring the next one(s) at a more affordable price.
As Vietnam’s film market started experiencing a rebirth, used film cameras were bought by weight from Cambodia and some other Southeast Asian countries which imported electronic waste from Japan and Western countries.
Those with decent appearance were sorted out, packed, and sent to Vietnam. Such a package cost second-hand dealers around VND 7-10 million, and they rarely faced a capital loss. All old cameras were thoroughly checked and priced based on quality before reaching the customers’ hands. Even those found in the scrap metal yard could be priced at tens of million dong if they were of excellent quality. Meanwhile, those in worse conditions would be transformed into decorations, planters, or ashtrays and sold at around VND 300,000-500,000.
Market forces have revived film photography. Shops and sellers have found other ways to bring better cameras to Vietnam. Many sell cameras hand-carried from Japan and Europe by friends and relatives so that they can remove intermediaries and control the selling prices themselves. Meanwhile, it is easy to order photographic apparatus on eBay — all you need is a deep pocket.
Consumers’ seemingly trivial emotional needs have turned the fate of many dying corporations. Kodak reported making a profit in 2020 after more than 14 consecutive years of losses. The company announced at the end of 2022 that it would hire more workers to increase film production to meet the market demands. Around the same time, Pentax unveiled its plans to introduce a new line of film cameras. Meanwhile, Fujifilm’s film simulation camera models have gradually become trendy, boosting consumption among young customers.
We can buy and own a camera. From a market perspective, consumers can change the status quo of an industry, but such change will inevitably come with delights and sorrows. On the bright side, it satisfies a minor group’s preferences. Nevertheless, we can never go back to the heyday of film photography when freelance practitioners around Hoan Kiem Lake could live well on their income.
Nostalgia, after all, can only serve to create future aesthetics instead of saving people and things of the past.