The camera was Kodak; single use and it 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 war time, this one was a new model, and clearly someone had accidentally dropped it on the beach.
It was two minutes after the lifeguard had cleared the people from the beach due to the upcoming storm that I decided to go back to the spot where I found it and pick it up from the sand. Among travelling companions, I would easily forget about the camera and enjoy seafood barbeque in the restaurant where we took shelter. But I was alone, the book I brought along with me had lost me at page forty or something, so I ordered a cold 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. When I was eight years old my grandfather did something that entirely changed my life. He bought me my first camera from a secondhand shop on his way back from his farm where he had one buffalo, two cows, four chickens and six pigs. At the time, I would imagine of inventing a maid robot or going on an underwater journey with a submarine, but to have a camera of my own seemed unimaginable. We weren’t rich, but we weren’t poor, either.
Being an eight year old kid with a camera was the kind of an unforgettable experience for me. From that point forward, 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 became the evident that we were once alive in 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 everytime 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 life guard 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 north eastern 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 make 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 minimally talent in photography and the fact that I’ve been continuingly 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 era. 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 dark room 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 less 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 incessantly 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 own a camera but didn’t know how to swim.
I 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 2 appeared on top of the camera. I looked through the view finder to find something interesting, anything worthwhile and good enough to keep it for one best shot. And there she was. A girl who’s parking a 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 rain coat as she entered the restaurant. ‘This is my camera!’ She came up to me, took off the hood of her rain coat. I said, ‘Oh…’ I didn’t expect the owner to show up so quick while I’m about to take a picture with her camera.
‘I found it on the beach.’
‘Yeah, I must have dropped 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 seeking for a chance to practice their perfect English. She began to speak in what sounded like she wanted to poop so badly.
‘This is my whole trip.’ She said regarding to her camera. ‘I can only take 27 photos of it.’
Her wet face and how she rode her bike back all the way from the city to find it despite the heavy rain kind of told it all; that she really wanted to find it and how these undeveloped negatives it contained must be important to her. 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 a she would want to take. From my experience of using the camera my grandfather gave me; 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 save 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 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.
Sam Nathapong is an independent writer and journalist living in Bangkok. Twitter @nathapongsam