Lessons Through Photography

Zenith_E

When I was nine years old, my aunt bought me a camera for my birthday. She was an air hostess for British Airways and had a knack for picking up weird and unusual gifts from far away places. That year I received a Zenit-E Russian 35mm SLR camera manufactured somewhere in the grim seventies by the Krasnogorsk Mechanical Factory (KMZ) a little outside of Moscow. I guess she picked it up second hand on her recent visit there.

It was a fully manual SLR with a light meter above the lens. Shutter speeds ranged between 1/30 to 1/500 s, and had a bulb setting with cable release for long exposures. It also had a built in timer on the front casing which ticked down like a time bomb. It was magic.

In Russia it was known as rugged and reliable, hence its popularity. To me it was something to be dissected and understood. I removed everything I could with my father’s crude shed tools and set about learning how it worked. Being rugged, it turned out, was vital while in my clumsy hands and victim to the many over sized screwdrivers and dull pliers I could find.

In no time I was able to not just operate it, but understand it after a few short hours poking its innards. I loved watching its mysteries slowly unwind; the snapping iris, jumping canvas shutter and spinning clogs and levers that dragged fresh film from the cartridge and rolled it all the way back again. Over time and many failed results from the local pharmacy, I worked out the basics, balancing light, clarity, depth and color using only levers and dials. It was my own portable chemistry lab fueled only by light. My only expense was the film.

I took the camera everywhere and photographed everything. I talked about it to anyone who would listen and slowly but surely rose up the rankings to an impressive 20% success rate. That is, of the 24 shots on a roll I was producing at least 5 or 6 good ones. I bought a photo book and called it “The Good Ones Book,” posting all the good shots inside it. My mother, my dog Sam, my late cousin Paul, my late great grandmother Whealan, the Concorde when it landed in Dublin airport, and an unhealthy number of pictures of the sky all fell into the “The Good Ones Book”.

As the digital age arrived I held onto my Zenith-E and refused to upgrade. I had seen the 2 & 3 mega pixel photographs and they represented reality just as Madam Tussauds represented real people. All warmth and depth was substituted for convenience. That could be a metaphor for modern living but I couldn’t be arsed exploring it. I also had no money. It was a little more than that though. I loved that camera, we had history. It was a gift from a member of my family, from the side that never really showed much affection. It was also very heavy which I’ve always associated with meaning that it was expensive.    

On January 2002 I left home to backpack around the world and that rugged little camera was the first thing I packed. Recently I found an old travel journal and have been having some fun reading through old entries and emails. I found this entry below, the sorry end to my friend. I don’t know why the love suddenly stopped. I’m guessing the constant heat, the weight of the camera and the 20% success rate took it’s toll and made this entry necessary.  

…on Tuesday we’re traveling to Port Dixon and then onto Malacca, Malaysia. The following day we take a bus overnight to Singapore where hopefully i`ll pick up a cheap Discman and maybe a new camera! The huge Zenith-E 1970 Russian made camera I’ve being carrying around is still very hit and miss so i`ll try to sell it! It’s an antique.

When I arrived in Singapore I bought a new camera, an SLR just like the Zenith but with a 100% success rate. Everything was automatic, no dials or levers and to be honest, it was a lot less fun to operate. Everyone else bought digital cameras but I stuck with what I knew. I could not bring myself to sell the Zenith in the end, and now I was lugging around two rather large heavy cameras in my backpack. I loved it, we would work something out. We’d been together since I was nine. Whatever frustration I had felt was now gone.

Unfortunately bad luck struck when I got to Perth, Australia. Due to some serious money issues I walked to a local used camera store one day and sold it for $30 out of absolute desperation. Heavy no longer meant expensive, I learned. It was a dark day indeed and the memory of leaving it behind in the shop window stayed with me for a very long time.

Below are some random photographs (badly scanned) I took in no particular order with the Zenith-E. In retrospect I could not have picked a better camera to take with me through deserts, jungles and filthy overcrowded cities. It was dropped, kicked, splashed with water, caked in dust and covered in sand but I could always fix it with what I had on hand. It never failed to give me its best 20%–and that’s better than most people I know.

Zenith-E  Photographes 2002

Vietnam.

An American Tank in the jungle close to the Chu Chi Tunnels, just outside Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) Vietnam. I remember putting my fingers in the deep bullet indentations of its hard metal. You can see two on the end of the turret. A local explained how the tank had its track blown off and caught fire. It lay in an area that had become a bizarre tourist attraction promoted by the government.

Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia.
We were to take a small boat to meet up with a ferry that would sail us down Tonle Sap Lake from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. A pickup truck gathered us from our $1 a night motel to the lake shore. As we boarded the comically small boat, its wood creaked and moaned until eventually giving way and sank at the shore line. We were going to miss our ferry! A passing motorboat was flagged down and a few of us boarded it with our heavy bags and gave chase. By the time we got there it was so overloaded we had to sit on its roof. We sailed forever under the baking sun and I managed to avoid sunburn with creative use of a towel, a hat and SPF 50 suncream. That’s my mate Stephen reading in the bottom left. 
Mekong River, Vietnam.

The locals go about their business.

Cambodia.

My ex-girlfriend’s feet somewhere in Cambodia in a $1 a night motel. It was always so hot we never once slept below the covers.

Traders, Vietnam. 
School Bus/Boat, Vietnam.
Floating Village, Vietnam.

A floating village which I think was near Chau Doc in the An Giang province. I have a vague memory of sitting on a long narrow boat passing through this eery place. All of it floated in silence on the water, including the power cables–one of which we had to duck under in order to pass through.

Muslim School, Vietnam.
We visited a small town in which the population was entirely Muslim, not too far from the floating village. This isolated minority were flourishing deep inside an overwhelmingly Buddhist country. The locals let us enter a school house to watch the children have lessons. They seemed quite excited by it all, as were we. 
The Killing Fields, Cambodia. 

There were hundreds of skulls on display at the various sites we visited. It was a sobering experience, seeing so many human remains. The memorials, mass graves and our visit to S-21 left a lasting impression on me for a long time after. When I was walking around taking various photographs I had only one thought in my mind, that these once were people.

In amongst all this horror you could be suddenly swamped by a group of happy children demanding that you give them pens. Up to this point on our trip we had been asked for money or pressured into buying goods we didn’t need. Being harassed for pens because the local schools didn’t supply them was a welcome relief.

Brother & Sister, Vietnam

Our bus stopped on the road for reasons I can’t remember. The older sister was taking her younger brother somewhere when they stopped to watch us out of curiosity. They spoke no English but I managed to get them to pose for this shot.

Vietnam.

Stephen was snatched from the street by two very excited children who wanted him to meet their family. Stephen is the most stubborn person I have ever met but these kids really wore him down. They tugged at him with every ounce of strength and were unrelenting in bringing their find home. I managed to grab this shot just after he surrendered to them.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
Fish Market, Mekong River, Vietnam. 
Mother & Daughter pose on the Mekong River, Vietnam.

Sunset at The Angkor Wat Temples, Siem Reap, Cambodia.

It took a lot of time to set up every shot with the Zenith. This along with it’s 20% success rate meant I had to choose carefully each photograph that I took. There was limited film and if I really liked what I was shooting I’d take two for safety. Each shot meant something, it suddenly became excitement and anticipation that I carried with me everywhere until the roll was developed. Even the ugly ones. This slow and deliberate approach remains a habit even now when I snap something with my iPhone.

The main difference now is that with the Zenith, I was forced to have conversations with whomever I was photographing. I had to be there. There were no quick snaps. I’d have to set it up while making conversation just to pass the time so the subject wouldn’t lose patience and walk away or hide in the growing shadows. The moment itself and not just the shot were captured. I remember standing with my great grandmother explaining why she couldn’t move while I took her picture due to the bad light. The same for my cousin. I remember those moments more than the photographs themselves. That’s what was special for me. All those beautiful moments, like standing in a field wishing my pockets were bursting with pens so I could throw them like confetti over a dark and ugly place.

     

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