Shooting Film in India Part I // An Introduction

Contax 645, Kodak Portra 400

Contax 645, Kodak Portra 400

Hello! I’m Elise Hanna. I just returned to the U.S. from two years abroad, living and working in Chennai, formerly Madras, the capital of India’s southernmost state, Tamil Nadu. I am a photographer, a traveler, a mother of three, and lover of film. I am the wife of a diplomat (a la Julia Child) and I’ve been an artist my whole life.

After the birth of our daughter, Clementine, in Brazil, I hesitated to shoot anything, because shooting meant editing, and editing meant time away from my family. As an artist, a mom, and a perfectionist, the “endless possibilities,” of working in digital format was too large of a parameter for me to work within. I wanted to get my photographs just right, simply, and right out of the camera. Most of all, I wanted to love the process again.

I scaled back my editing to one-click VSCO film emulations. I modified my shooting further to get it right with just one shot and then I began to wonder why I needed the Canon 5D Mark III I possessed at the time at all.  I had shot film in my adolescence and was intrigued by the simple beauty film provided, but I needed a push off the cliff to set me free of digital distractions.

I got that push at Jon Canlas’ FIND Workshop in May, 2013. Since then, I’ve never looked back. I attended the workshop with a thirst for knowledge and left with a family of like-minded film lovers that became my support system from across oceans. For the past two years, I’ve shot film nearly exclusively.

Despite moving to India, I decided to continue to shoot film, because I had finally found my groove. I had begun to love photography again and seeing through the lens of my film cameras, namely the Contax 645, was like putting on a pair of glasses after not seeing clearly for my entire life. I also figured while a million photographers have laid their lenses upon India, I had an opportunity to shoot India in a new and different way. While it may seem a little nutty to have lugged the Contax about the streets of Chennai, I don’t regret it for a second, and the portfolio I created yields a softness about a city that at first glance seems deserted and dirty and that one only comes to know after falling in love with Chennai.  The Contax isn’t just for hazy afternoon weddings in the California countryside; it lent compassion to the often over-dramatized grit of India.

But shooting film in India certainly wasn’t without its challenges or its costs. Upon my arrival, I searched for labs in Chennai that would develop medium format film and discovered that only 35mm color was being processed and in “pharmacy” quality labs with the same quality results. With labs popping up in the U.S. and throughout Europe, I found that labs in India were swiftly closing down. I hunted high and low, I found myself at tea in the homes of complete strangers, discussing the possibility of shipping film via courier to other cities within India. I even once found myself at the top of a terrace at “The Camera House”, on the verge of being swallowed by an immense collection of antique cameras and being swarmed by the entirety of Chennai’s wild parakeet population simultaneously. A story for another time.

People questioned my ability to continue to shoot film, and India challenged it, but film and its incredible, faithful, and passionate family reigned supreme. 

I'll be back soon with more tips and tricks for shooting film in India, how and where I developed it and how it made it's long journey back to the U.S.A. Until then, for more photographs from India, recipes and travel guides, please visit my blog

Tchau!
Elise