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Why the CPB Darkroom workshops focus on visual storytelling

Darkroom, the Chennai Photo Biennale Foundation’s analogue photography workshop series, starts its 2024 sessions this weekend

Aishwarya Arumbakkam leads a previous session of the CPB's Darkroom workshops.(Courtesy Chennai Photo Biennale Foundation)

By Vangmayi Parakala

LAST PUBLISHED 06.03.2024  |  04:30 PM IST

You know, Pentax just announced that their new film camera will be out soon," says Varun Gupta, president of the Chennai Photo Biennale (CPB) in a conversation about their Darkroom Workshops, whose 2024 run starts this weekend in Chennai.

Clearly thrilled, he is referring to the Japanese camera-makers’ latest development in their Film Camera Project: the successful prototyping of a brand new compact film camera to be launched in summer this year. “Exciting things are happening for analogue photography, with brands coming back and committing to film lines," he says. Think Leica reintroducing their M6 rangefinder camera in 2022, and Lomography launching a new line of film called the LomoChrome Color 92 film in mid-2023. “It really is a testament that there is a market for film photography and that market is growing," Gupta adds.

Such developments, coupled with the trends they have noticed and nurtured with photographers of all stripes in India, have led CPB to the juncture they find themselves at today. As they kick off the 2024 Darkroom workshops this weekend—earlier led by Gupta and now being mentored by photographer and multi-disciplinary artist Aishwarya Arumbakkam—next week, they will also launch India’s first black-and-white reversal film, which is a slide film that shows a captured shot as is, directly through a projector. “We are calling it Ulta 100. A play on the Hindi word for upside down," Gupta says.

In India, the resurgence of analogue photography has fed into a youth subculture by itself, with millennials and Gen Z thrifting film cameras and shooting on film available in the market. They have also formed networks over messaging apps like Whatsapp and Telegram, and social media like Facebook and Instagram. And while there are a few senior photographers, artists and academics who hold talks, photowalks and workshops in some pockets, a more mainstream and cohesive intervention that will help guide the community and expose them to artists and diverse analogue photo-practices seems to be lacking.

This is where the CPB Darkroom workshops hope to step in. Their Darkroom 101 and Darkroom 102 courses are geared towards covering the basics: what is special about film, and about how to expose, shoot, develop, and print, along with a critique by the artist leading the workshop. These have seen a total of 115 participants from across India, including Coimbatore, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Delhi, and Kashmir, over both courses since starting in June last year.

Now, their recently added Darkroom 201 course, with its next batch starting in April, will focus on visual storytelling through film, with a simulated assignment where a participant will shoot a photo essay on one film roll of 36 shots, over 3-5 days. “This course teaches you film photography as it is meant to be done…not just shooting one roll over six months, developing it and then saying, ‘wow, how charming’," he says.

For him, it is the intentionality that film photography forces onto the photographer—with the inability to see the image you shoot in real time, the limited number of shots per roll, and the sheer effort it takes to process, develop, scan and/or print a negative—that is crucial. “It is important to instil that into photographers to appreciate the making, because that also then affects the practice," he notes."

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The CPB Darkroom workshops will continue to take place at the CPB Lighthouse, a community space that opened in July 2023. The space, which has a photography library and their fully kitted commercial darkroom, also has areas demarcated for workshops and teaching.

In an interview with Mint Lounge, the workshops’ current mentor Arumbakkam, who was named in 2019 as one of the ‘Ones to Watch’ by the British Journal of Photography, and awarded the Magnum Foundation Photography and Social Justice Fellowship in 2020, talks about the sessions, analogue versus digital photography, and the relationship one builds with analogue processes. Edited excerpts:

Considering developments like AI intervention in phone photography even as the user is shooting, what does one get from viewing a photograph shot on film versus one shot digitally?

In the context of your question, we are assuming that the audience for the picture (the viewer) is the same as the photographer (the user). Inherent in this situation is one of the crux of working with film.

In the situation you have described, the person who is photographing is looking at the photograph as they are photographing it. However, while photographing with film, you cannot do that. Instead, you are looking at the subject you are photographing. The photograph itself reaches you much later. You work with what many people have described as the “latent image." This passage of time affects the way one both looks at and makes the image.

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Is there an advantage in learning the basics of photography through film first before graduating to digital?

Both film and digital have their own unique characteristics. I wouldn’t say starting with one is better than the other. Oftentimes these decisions are quite practical and are based on what you have access to at a certain point in time. In my experience, you learn with whatever you have access to, whether it is film or digital, and I find it important to be open to that. They each bring their own set of learnings with them.

I wouldn’t frame it as “graduating" from one to another, but look at it as a more conscious movement between the two. In some ways, I find that film distills the technical aspects of photography to its very basics and that can be quite freeing.

A photograph, shot and developed by Murugan, a participant at an earlier Darkroom session (Courtesy Chennai Photo Biennale Foundation)

The resurgence of analogue is, in lay conversations, quickly attributed to a general exhaustion with screens and digital media. Do you see any other factors leading people to work with film again?

In my limited experience, the reasons people have to start working with film are quite individual. It is also important to note that for a lot of people, it is not about working with film “again." Many people starting to work with film at present are interacting with film as a medium or even material for the first time. Most people in our workshops seem to start with a sense of curiosity, which is a beautiful place to begin any process. In the best-case scenario, the answer to “why" is personal and is revealed over time by the medium to you.

The next CPB Darkroom workshop, Darkroom 201, will run from 28-31 March. The next Darkroom 101 & 102 will run from 9 April-14 April. For details and registration, visit www.chennaiphotobiennale.foundation.