The Elusive Film Interview

I am Melvin Mapa and this is why I shoot film

We often see the phrase “a long time coming” but what does that really mean? Well, in this case, it’s nine months. That’s how long we’ve been working on this with Melvin. Most of the delay has been the fault of yours truly but trust me, it’s been well worth the wait.

Time to hand over to Melvin and his brand of documentary-street photography.

Hi Melvin, what’s this picture, then?

MM: As a practice, I do street photography during my lunch hours at work. Taking photographs is more important for me than having lunch. I got lucky with this one during a sudden downpour near where I work.



Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)

MM: I am a Singapore-based Creative Director and documentary-street photographer. Currently, I am working on self-funded documentary projects about the plight of Overseas Filipino Workers and Buddhism.

When did you start shooting film and what about now? Why do you shoot film and what drives you to keep shooting?

MM: Back in the 80s. It came about at an early age when my parents gave me a KODAK 110 camera which I use to take pictures of my family and our neighbours.


A decade after that, I took a course in film photography but unfortunately they did not share much detailed information and instructions. So I ended up teaching myself the process (assessing the negative, darkroom hardware, printing tricks and techniques) and since then I never stopped making photographs.

I am old-fashioned and a purist kind of guy. Seriously, one of the reasons why I still shoot film is that a roll of film can preserve images for hundreds of years. Films were built to last.

I also derive pleasure in its slow, disciplined, and meditative process. You shoot, then you wait. You develop, then you wait. You print in the darkroom, then you wait. It is calming. It is zen-like.

What’s the next challenge…your next step? How do you see improving your technique, or what aspect of your photography would you like to try and master in the next 12 months?

MM:I want to make a stronger connection or bond with my subjects, so I would probably do more close-ups or portraits of them in my narratives.

Any favourite subject matter?

MM: I’m passionate about people. Their culture, stories, how they go about in the streets, etc. Whether I’m doing street photography or documentary, I’d still choose to take photos of people. I have set this as the purpose of my film photography — to share a deep understanding of their stories.

You can never use film again. What’s your last roll?


MM: None other than an Ilford HP5+. That would be my last roll. It’s tried, tested, and pleased with the results it gives. It’s versatility is unparalleled in my opinion. The grain it pops when pushed is just stunning.

You have 2 minutes to prepare for an assignment. One camera, one lens, two films and no idea of the subject matter. What do you take with you and why?

MM: My trusty Leica M6, 28mm Elmarit, and a couple of Ilford HP5+ films. I would bring my Leica, of course, for its unmatched simplicity and reliability. Complicated cameras distract your focus on the goal of photography. The simpler it is the further I can concentrate on what I’m shooting. It is vital to connect the subject to its environment and the wide 28mm Elmarit achieves that accurately. Leica and Ilford have been a component of my photography life. I prohibit myself using other tools than this set up.

You have an unlimited supply of film to shoot in one location. Where do you go?

MM: Oh, that’s very thrilling! Take me to Manila in the Philippines. I want to get lost in its streets taking photographs and will never get tired of it. Every street corner there tells a compelling story.

What do you think is people’s greatest misconception about film photography and how would you set it straight?

MM: “It is not beneficial to the photographer anymore. Somewhat irrelevant.” I get this false impression a lot of times. Specially from people I meet in the streets whenever I shoot. In fact, film photography is elevating and you develop self-mastery or discipline in the process. Photographic creativity does not end in the split second that a shutter is open. A great deal of the pleasure of film photography begins only when the film is removed from the camera. That is what digital-natives of this time can’t grasp.

In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?

MM: It’s far from being dead. Supporters and enthusiasts are growing. Many of my digital-native friends are getting curious about it and want to experience film photography and film processing. Manufacturers, such as Harman technology/Ilford Photo, vow to support new and old users. So I guess there’s an exciting and bright future ahead of us as far as film photography is concerned.

We’re not done yet

I was particularly struck by the scans Melvin provided and during our dialogue I asked him a few more questions, which I’d like to share with you all here:

You mentioned that the images on your website are scans of prints, as opposed to (I’m assuming) scans of negatives and then a bit of post production

MM: Yes, they are. It lessens the digital post-production (which I avoid all the time). What you see is what you get.

I’d really like to get your perspectives on how the darkroom process informs the way you consider, meter for and capture your images before working on them in the darkroom.

MM: The darkroom process plays an important role in every one of the photographs I take. Each photo is quickly and carefully shot with the darkroom process in mind. What type of paper I’m going to print it on, whether to use a multigrade filter or not, whether darkroom split filtering is necessary, etc. All of these factors are somehow hardwired in my head before I go out to shoot. It seems ambitious if you’re going to think about it. I guess I’ve managed to shoot this way effortlessly and efficiently through years of practice. To put it candidly, it’s like Ansel Adams shooting like Henri Cartier-Besson.

Do you make test prints, and then edit/annotate them for a second run?

MM: Yes, I do. I am a perfectionist when it comes to printing my photos. Whether for exhibit, sale, or gifts amongst friends, I see to it that all tones are present in the photograph.


This interview by Emulsive was originally published on their website.

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