The camera was Kodak; single-use and someone had devoted time to painting sunflowers on it. I found it on a beach outside of Hanoi, Vietnam. This was a rugged and tattered disposable camera—a new model, as new as a disposable camera goes, someone had lost it here in the sands.
A dark cloud was looming toward land, and the lifeguards started clearing people from the beach. I picked up the camera and headed to the nearest beach restaurant.
It was a strange feeling. As if I was stealing things by not giving them to one of the lifeguards. This type of camera used to be expensive. At least when I was eight years old when my grandfather bought a proper camera from a secondhand shop on his way back from his farm. It was a gift out of pity. He saw a younger version of me out pretending to take pictures with a camera made from cardboard boxes.
Since then I always had the camera with me. It’s like an organ. The world I looked at through the lens seemed much more interesting than what my real eyes could see. Through the lens, I have the power to capture the scene that would soon become the evidence that we were once alive at that moment. And I enjoyed using that power very much.
It was the year that if you open my bedroom door, the first thing that hit you is the smell of the developed film rolls.
Unfortunately, the moments I took were not quite what my grandfather was expecting to see once he sacrificed his own saving for adding a horse on his own farm and bought me a camera instead.
Soon after a few albums consisting of photos of broken windows, stray cats, and naked tourists were produced, my grandfather decided to draw a line.
‘Please put the camera away’ became his mantra, as well as his ongoing disappointment glare every time I asked him for money to buy a new film roll.
‘You’re wasting your film and you’re wasting my money.’
‘This is the last film roll I’m gonna buy for you. From now if you are going to continue with your photography, you’ve gotta pay for it on your own.’
‘But how?’ I asked, ‘I’m only eight.’
Getting a job as a lifeguard was the first thing I thought of. Forgetting that I was too young to save anybody and the inevitable fact that I can’t swim.
It’s strange for the people living on an island that none of my family members know how to swim properly. We had our own logic that if you don’t want to drown then you must stay away from the water.
My grandfather came from the northeastern part of the country where he’d spent most of his youth working in a rice paddy. Never once saw the ocean until his late thirties when he moved to the south. Never taught or encouraged any of his children to swim because he didn’t see the significance or the difference it was going to make between a person who can swim and the person who can’t swim. It’s the same logic, I think, that he had never taught me how to take a picture properly which I could have made him proud.
The biggest mistake of my childhood was when I sneaked off to the swimming pool with my younger brother. I saw some kids floating with the colorful swimming boards and thought that was easy, so I grabbed a nearby board and jumped right into the water. Somebody else’s parents offered to drive us home after I almost drowned in the pool.
After being told what happened, instead of thinking about taking me to a swimming class, the fear registered on my grandfather’s face as he used his own logic to put an end to our swimming argument.
Added to his own disappointment; I asked him for money to buy a new film roll.
All the time I was reminded of my minimal talent in photography and the fact that I’ve been using the camera he gave me in the following years but we never had our own darkroom kind of reassured me that I couldn’t take it more seriously than a hobby.
This, of course, was before the digital age. When my father first saw the digital camera. He was the first in line for it. The money to buy and develop the negatives in the darkroom was deemed deductible from his budget.
There were fewer people creating and posting photos online at the time and it pretty much remained the authenticity of photography. This was until Instagram came to destroy everything on its way.
I saw it coming so I refused to join Instagram as I thought it would be a betrayal of authenticity. Then I recalled the drowning event that scarred me for life. To survive in the digital age, I need to adapt and learn to swim under the strong current of incessant productivity.
It hurts me to think that the majority of Instagram photos aren’t bad. People from everywhere around the world are busy creating great work that would end up being just another photo of an iced latte from a Starbucks. The problem is there’s too much information flying in the current and we didn’t have enough time to really appreciate it. If I was busy creating good photographs but didn’t know how to show them to the public, it’s just resembling an eight-year-old boy who owns a camera but didn’t know how to swim.
A more grown-up yet version of me on a Vietnam beach was looking at the sunflower painting while rolling the gear wheel, the wheel you use to wind the film to prepare for the next picture, and when the wheel stopped, number two appeared on top of the camera.
I looked through the viewfinder to find something interesting, anything worthwhile and good enough to keep it for one best shot. And there she was. A blonde girl who’s parking a rental motorbike in front of the seafood restaurant where a lot of people took shelter from the storm. She came here alone and the rain dripped from her pink Hello Kitty raincoat as she entered the restaurant.
‘Hey! You found my camera!’ She came up to me and took off the hood of her raincoat.
‘I found it on the beach.’
‘Yeah, I thought I lost it.’
‘I suppose your trip is almost over.’ I said, suggesting she has only one photo left. I wonder what would be the last photo that she would want to take.
The last film slot is always saved for the special moment. The moment that was precious and worth the last place on that film roll.
‘Yeah, the last film must be saved for the very special occasion.’ She seemed to agree and then said, ‘But don’t be silly. I can always buy a new one.’
This particular film camera is a reminder of how transient everything is. It was the product of the brand that was once powerful and that is the brand of the camera my grandfather had bought me when I was eight.
It was heartbreaking to know the company went into bankruptcy earlier in the year when I began my trip to Vietnam. We should all learn to adapt.
The globalization force is fierce you need to almost drown in the pool to prove that your grandfather’s wrong. To overcome your fear is to overcome ‘his’ fear. I looked over to the dark thick clouds at the horizon where it sent a strong wind that might blow up the roof of the restaurant. ‘That’s pretty scary.’
What scared me more than the whistling and rumbling is the thought that I wouldn’t be able to save anybody if there was a flash flood. I couldn’t say that my grandfather wasn’t trying his best to be my good grandparent. He changed my life by giving me that camera but at the same time, he had no idea he was creating the ghost of my childhood I see through the lens ever since. It is the memories I wish they were just as disposable, like that camera.