They say a picture is worth a thousand words.
Perhaps that used to be true, back in a time when a single photograph could feed a starving nation like Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” or condemn war like Nick Ut’s “Napalm Girl,” or capture the burning spirit of a generation like Stuart Franklin’s “Tank Man.”
Those photographs came to define, and in some cases change, the course of history.
What’s different today is that photographers aren’t just competing with each other for attention. They’re also competing against a wired and visually distracted world saturated with internet memes, clickbait, news or dubious stories spreading lies and misinformation.
Today, nearly anyone can take breathtaking pictures using cameras with their lightning-fast autofocus, SD cards that hold hundreds of thousands of images and wireless technology that can send them to the other side of the planet with the touch of a few buttons.
But film photographers didn’t have such luxuries. For them, taking a picture meant spending the afternoon in a pitch-black room rinsing light-sensitive strips of plastic with chemicals that could stain your skin — or paying someone to do it for you — and the number of pictures one could take was determined by how many rolls of film you had.
In many ways, film photography is a dying art. Japan, however — as the birthplace of Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Olympus, Sony and Fujifilm, among others — has earned its nickname as the “photography capital of the world” and could be the starting point of a movement led by young photographers to keep it alive.
Minami Sakamoto is one such person. More often than not, the 31-year-old photographer is carrying a relatively cheap but heavily used — and properly dinged up — compact point-and-shoot film camera.
“I found this one in a pile in a camera store somewhere in Shinjuku. It had a cute flash so I bought it,” she said, laughing as she turned it over in her hands. “I’m not picky about my cameras.”
While she was studying photography at Tokyo Visual Arts School, Sakamoto worked part time for a cabaret club in Shinjuku, where she cut her teeth capturing the city’s nightlife. Her work has been published and displayed in books, catalogs, magazines and galleries throughout the city. She uses digital photography for her job and film for exhibitions and her personal work.
“With a film camera you have less control,” she said. “It’s more interesting when things don’t go according to plan.”
The notion of a photographer like Sakamoto using film confuses people. Some think it’s about nostalgia; others say it’s nothing but a fad, an ironic fixation with the tools and trinkets of a bygone era.
“I think that’s nonsense,” she said. “Film is expensive to develop and sort of a hassle, so I don’t think they’re doing it because it’s cool or trendy. I think they do it because they enjoy it.”
Back in the day, great work was forged by the limitations of technology, not in spite of them. Indeed, young photographers seem to be gravitating toward the vintage feel and aesthetic qualities that can only be captured by film.
“People like the idea of having something that’s a bit older, that’s a bit more tactile or mechanical,” said Bellamy Hunt, a British camera buyer and broker based in Tokyo who sees signs of a brighter future for film.
After starting his own business in 2011, Hunt nicknamed himself the “Japan Camera Hunter,” or JCH for short. He now makes a living buying, selling, sourcing, modifying and repairing film cameras. Though most of his customers live in the United States and Canada, he’s received orders from all around the world, including Australia, Nepal, Iceland, Hong Kong, Greenland, Peru and the Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean off east Africa.
Signs of a revival are growing.
In 2016, Hunt began selling a film called JCH Street Pan, a black-and-white film previously used by the German government that he was able to get back into production.
Around the same time, Eastman Kodak Co. revived two kinds of film: Ektachrome for color and T-Max P3200 for black and white.
More recently, Fujifilm Holdings Corp. announced on June 10 that it was going to reintroduce a black-and-white film exclusively in Japan this fall and then to international markets, depending on demand.
Fuji had discontinued all of its black-and-white film and photo paper products in April 2018.
“And you’re going to see more,” Hunt said. “It’s necessary if we want film photography to continue. Not just new film but new products for the market as well.”
Recent efforts by companies to engage younger generations — Kodak is partnering with clothing brand Forever 21, for example — along with the introduction of new products, have sparked a renewed interest in film.
But the industry continues to struggle. Even in the past three years, as supply and demand continue to plummet, countless film and film chemical products have been discontinued and most of what remains has become more expensive.
Some say it’s the beginning of the end for film photography. Others, however, believe film is neither dead nor dying, but only changing, and that the market is merely adjusting to a shift in consumer tastes.
Perhaps this is best illustrated by what appeared to be the demise of a German chemical manufacturer called Tetenal.
In January, the company announced it was closing for good. It may survive, however, thanks to a management buyout led by a small group of employees from its photochemical division looking to steer it toward a more sustainable and profitable future.
The survival of Tetenal 1847 GmbH is crucial to film photography as manufacturers like Ilford Imaging and Kodak, along with several Japanese companies, depend on its chemicals. Tetenal also makes products for Epson ink and inkjet paper for the European market, along with a number of cleaning and water-treatment products.
“A lot of people worldwide don’t really know about Tetenal,” said Marwan Mozayen, founder and editor of Photoklassik International, a film photography magazine based in Germany. “They don’t realize that most products are from Tetenal even if the name is not written on it … Some manufacturers get nearly all of their supply from Tetenal. We’re talking about a hundred percent.”
Ilford Imaging, the world’s biggest manufacturer of black-and-white film, narrowly avoided liquidation in 2005 thanks to an employee-driven buyout as well.
In 2008, after Polaroid Corp. announced it would stop producing film for instant cameras, a company called the Impossible Project bought its machinery and continued production. Nearly a decade later, in 2017, it was renamed Polaroid Originals and its products are selling better than most digital cameras.
Even in the past few years, film photographers have had their fair share of good and bad news. Many kinds of film have been discontinued while others have been revived, repackaged and sold again. Meanwhile, companies like Fuji, Kodak and Ilford seem to be struggling to provide for a dwindling but dedicated clientele.
At the same time, digital photography is only getting better.
Headlines talk of mirrorless cameras with 42-megapixel resolution and 8K video capabilities while companies like Canon, Sony, Nikon and a slew of others race forward.
That, compounded by the rise of the smartphone and social media, has “reduced the value of a single photo.”
“We are just overwhelmed with an unbelievable amount of photos,” Mozayen said. “Everybody’s a photographer.”
As a result, he explained, there’s an absence of iconic images.
“Everyone of us knows one or two images from the Vietnam War,” he said. “There were photos that changed our minds and changed history. Just one or two photos.”
Wedding photography, Mozayen added, has also changed. It used to be that a photographer would shoot with a film camera then develop, print and bind the best shots in a proper book that was cherished by the newlyweds, their friends and families for years. Nowadays, most people ask their in-laws to take pictures with a cheap digital camera bought the week prior.
“Suddenly a wedding is just a USB stick with thousands of images, and the experience is totally different,” Moyazen said.
For better or worse, nearly every genre of photography — sports, fine art, commercial, portraiture, street or photojournalism — has been upended by digital cameras.
“There is a kind of a crisis of authenticity with photography these days,” said Renato Repetto, a photographer from Australia. “We are bombarded with imagery so much more than we were in the past.”
Repetto, who recently moved to Kyoto, is the founder and director of the 400TX Project. The project, which kicked off in Australia in May 2017 and in Japan the year after that, involves having photographers use the same camera and lens — which they pass onto each other like runners passing a baton in a relay race — to each shoot one roll of a type of film called Kodak T-Max 400.
About 35 photographers in Australia and 10 in Japan have participated so far. Once each photographer — 50 in each country, 100 total — have shot a roll of film, they’ll send it to Repetto, who will develop it, and eventually publish them all in a photobook and organize a gallery exhibition.
Repetto started the project to demonstrate the beauty and craftsmanship of film photography, and to show people why it’s important to preserve the technology.
“Film photography, as a whole, has been in the spotlight,” Repetto said. “I hope that the project continues to bring attention to film photography and make young photographers … and young photojournalists think maybe there is something different about film photography apart from just the aesthetic.”
Daikichi Kawazumi, 24, is the youngest photographer in 400TX.
The Fukuoka native bought his first camera just over three years ago but he didn’t start shooting and developing his own film until more recently. He said he finds inspiration in photographers like Henri Cartier Bresson, Brassai and Eugene Smith.
“What I love the most are photographs that tell a story,” he said. “It makes me so happy that I can walk around and see things in a way that I had never seen before I held a film camera in my hand.”
As the number of young people using film continues to grow, so too is the criticism that they’re only doing so because it’s cool or trendy.
Kawazumi’s response to this was simple.
“When something becomes popular, more people see and hear about it which in turn gives them more opportunities to use it themselves. It only makes sense that more people are using film,” he said. “I don’t see anything wrong with that. I also don’t think anybody has any right to criticize that.”
Until the 400TX Project is finished, Kawazumi said it’s difficult to predict what the impact of the project will be. He hopes people will attend the exhibit, see the photographs and become interested in analog photography so they can experience the same enjoyment he feels when shooting with film.
“As part of the younger generation, I want to do everything I can to contribute to the community around me.”
Kawazumi and Sakamoto are part of a new breed of photographers inadvertently keeping film alive. Young and open-minded yet inquisitive and resourceful, they effortlessly combine the creativity of film and the efficiency of digital to fit their own needs.
As to whether a picture is still worth a thousand words, well, to them it goes without saying.