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The camera was Kodak; single use and it someone had painted sunflowers on its back with acrylic colors. I found it on a beach in Vietnam. Even though it had a rugged and vintage-grimed look as if it might contain the negatives during the wartime, this one was a new model as new as a disposable camera goes, and someone had lost it here in the sands.
As dark clouds raging toward land, the lifeguards started clearing people from the beach. I grabbed the camera and headed to a beach restaurant.
I ordered a local beer and examined the camera under the roof made of dry coconut leaf that was leaking incessantly. It was a strange feeling. Holding a camera that wasn’t mine especially when it's not a digital one.
When I was eight years old my grandfather bought a camera from a secondhand shop on his way back from his farm. It was for me. A younger version of me who enjoyed making camera out of cardboard boxes. It must be a pity rather than acknowledging me as a gifted photographer that he bought me a real camera. My life was about to change.
Being an eight-year-old kid with a camera was the kind of an unforgettable experience. I always had the camera with me. It’s like an organ. The world I looked 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 you’d notice 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’s sacrificed his own saving for adding a horse on his own farm and bought me a camera instead.
Soon after a few albums consisting the photo 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, and 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.’ He told me. ‘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. Forget that I was too young to save anybody and the inevitable fact that I can’t swim.
It’s strange, for the people who live on the island, that none of my family members know how to swim. But we have our own logic that if you don’t want to drown, stay away from the water. Because, to my grandfather’s eyes, the water is the killer.
He came from the northeastern side of the country where he’d spent most of his youth working in a rice paddy. Never once seen 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 in 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 of the following years but we never had our own dark room kind of reassured me that I couldn’t take it more seriously than a hobby.
This, of course, was before the digital age. When he first saw the digital camera, my father was the first in line for it. The money to buy and develop the negatives in the darkroom seemed unreasonable and ridiculous. I had been holding out using the film camera my grandfather gave me until he passed away. I was twenty when I bought my first digital camera as well as started my first blog to share my photographs.
There were fewer people creating and posting photos online at the time and it pretty much remained the authenticity of photography until Instagram came to destroy everything on its way. At first, I refused to join Instagram as I thought it would be a betrayal to Flickr. Then I recalled the drowning event that scarred me for life. That to survive in the digital age, I need to adapt and learn to swim under the strong current of the incessant productivity.
It hurts me to think that the majority of the Instagram photos aren’t bad. People from everywhere around the world are busy creating great work that would end up being just another Starbucks Instagram photo. 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 it 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 in 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, the 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 dripping from her pink Hello Kitty raincoat as she entered the restaurant.
‘This is my camera!’ She came up to me, took off the hood of her raincoat. I said, ‘Oh…’ I didn’t expect the owner to show up so quickly while I’m about to take a picture with her camera.
‘I found it on the beach.’
‘Yeah, I thought I lost it.’
If she was American or French she would have thank me and go. But the girl is Dutch and blonde. I should be used to the Dutch people attitude by now, as there’s a lot of Dutch traveling around South East Asia. They’re always seem to be seeking a chance to exercise their perfect English. She said.
I apologized for rolling the wheel. ‘But oh that’s perfect.’ She said. ‘I would want to take a picture with a man who found my camera anyway.’ The camera flashed and I forgot to smile, thinking that we can always retake the photo as if it was a digital camera. ‘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 of 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.’
Followed by the laughter that seemed to echo in my head louder than the thunder.
After all, the 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 to bankruptcy earlier in the year when I began my trip in Vietnam. Maybe we should all learn to adapt.
The globalization force is fierce and sometimes 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 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 were flooding. 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 has 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 disposable, just like the camera.
‘This is my entire two-week holiday. I can only take twenty seven photos of it.’
Story by Sam Nathapong (edited 2021)
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January 13, 2021
In order to see thing clearer if that person who flirts with you worth your time; you must not only look at his or her facial expression, or, his or her smile.
You should pay close attention to their body language which, very often, the betrayal of the mind.
If it’s they who show you their interest first and you chose to ignore the sign since, maybe, you’ve been preoccupied or it was signaling your way by a surprise.
You should study the way they walkaway from you. If he or she composes such confident afterward - forget about them. For obvious reason you’re not the only one they just and can walkaway from.
You are just another fish in the ocean.
On the other hand if they were to glance back or come back to talk to you. Why not give it a go?
Courage is hard to find these days.
Thanks for reading,