Why film is my favorite medium for street photography
In our digital, megapixel-driven world making the conscious decision to shoot film is rare amongst photographers. German street photographer Wieland Götzler rediscovered film as a medium. Join him on a fascinating journey to Pakistan.
Struggling to combine two media
Two years ago, I journeyed to Tajikistan. I took a Leica M9 (digital full-frame rangefinder camera) and a Leica M6 (film-based rangefinder camera) along for the ride. Upon returning home, I looked at the material I had shot and I quickly noticed that it was not actually very easy to combine my two media to create a single series. There was a lack of consistency in the images. That is when I knew I had to decide on one medium so that I would not have to capture an analog and a digital image of the same subject. It did not take me long to decide that film is the right medium for my work – and I have absolutely no regrets.
Back to pure photography
What I love most about analog photography is the manual skill and pure photography involved, i.e. it is not a digital process where a lot is taken care of by the camera itself. Even the electronic lightmeter in the Leica M6 bothered me. It is really frustrating when you have an idea in your head and you know how it should appear at a certain exposure time, which you have set yourself, but the internal lightmeter has other ideas.
Way better than a filter
Another reason I opted for film is the image quality. I am convinced it delivers better results than a digital camera. The look and feel is completely different, and the images appear more timeless, too. Many photographers feel they need to try and transfer this filmic quality to the digital medium; that is where grain filters and Kodachrome film come in. But that was never an option for me.
Focusing on the essentials – it’s all about slowing down
To me, film photography means boiling things down to the essentials. When I spy a subject, I do not want to have to set the white balance and press a hundred other buttons before I can take my shot. I simply do not have time for all that. The film determines the sensitivity and I know beforehand what I can expect if I expose it one way or another.
If you ask me, analog photography is probably the best way of learning how to deal with light. The parameters are limited, but at the end of the day it comes down to a handful of things: the procedure is boiled down to the aperture and shutter speed. In most lights, I am already familiar with them and they are preset on the camera, which means I can give my full attention to the subject.
What should I bear in mind when selecting film?
I take the majority of my photos using an Ilford Delta 400, an Ilford HP5+ and an FP4+, all of them black-and-white negatives. While the HP5+ and the FP4+ can be used as part of the same project, they cannot be combined with the Delta 400 due to their classic look. That is why I decide what film or films I would like to use before I get started. There are not many other restrictions. Of course, you have to make sure you take enough film with you. My films – especially the exposed ones – are always close at hand. Radiation, e.g. during safety checks, is not really an issue.
How does the medium I choose impact my work?
Black-and-white photography makes me look for contrast much more than I used to some years ago. The fact that camera and lens settings are defined in advance mean that I can interact with people differently and capture everyday situations in a more natural way. The most difficult thing for me thus far has been to bring the viewer closer to the people in an image. Once you have achieved that, you have certainly come a long way – and this has a positive impact on my work.
Street photography in extreme settings
Street photography is the focus of my work: I’m interested in finding out how societies work. That is why I often travel to places like Tajikistan, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, places where a whole lot more happens on the street. It is a wonderful feeling to delve into life in these places and capture unique photographs, but let me tell you, it is no easy task.
My goal is to capture the atmosphere, the smells, the dirt, and people’s emotions. When these countries make the news, the stories are often filled with terror and violence, but in Kabul people are getting on with their daily lives. Here in Germany, a lot of people don’t have the best impression of places like Iran but I think it’s wise to form your own opinion. It makes you stop judging things you cannot assess and are not familiar with. Things are actually a lot more complicated than they might appear, and there are no quick fixes when it comes to conflict.
Personal safety when on the road
It is absolutely vital to drink clean water. When traveling into northern Afghanistan, I once drank water from a stream that I thought was safe. Shortly afterwards, I spied a herd of sheep and feared the worst. Sure enough, for three days after that I had terrible stomach pains and became so weak that I could not go on. At my first hotel in Pakistan I was offered bottled water free of charge. However, I noticed that the seals were broken and one morning I saw the boys from the hotel filling them up from the faucet outside. So I decided to play it safe and buy bottled water myself. Food is not such a big problem. Most eateries on the street prepare fresh dishes and are delighted to serve foreigners.
But you should definitely take care when navigating traffic. The biggest difference in Iran was that cars did not slow down if they saw you were trying to cross the street. You had to walk into a gap in the traffic before they would slow down. This is feasible enough with a bit of practice. In countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan, I also dress like the locals. In Afghanistan, I don a peran tumban, and in Pakistan a salwar kameez to help me blend into the crowd. In Pakistan I was told I look like someone from Peshawar (on the border with Afghanistan), and that made me feel better.
Sure, be a bit naïve – but don’t be reckless!
I have been learning Farsi for a little over a year now and it comes in very handy when I am talking to people in Tajikistan, Iran and sometimes in Afghanistan, too. It is crucial to find reliable people you feel you can trust. And sometimes, you have no choice but to trust them. Take my 2015 trip from Tajikistan to Afghanistan. When entering Tajikistan, I had forgotten to get the pass from border officials that I needed to present when leaving the country. Luckily, my friend Abdulali, from Tajikistan, was there to help: he spoke to the soldiers on my behalf and convinced them to let me cross the border.
Capturing meaningful shots
What I love most about my job is the part where I get to be a true “craftsman.” It takes a little longer until you get a finished image, but when I see the result in a large, handmade print, the quality you can get from a 35 mm negative is both satisfying and impressive. For all those who aren’t familiar with the concept, I am talking about creating a handmade print from a negative. Nowadays, in the era of Instagram photos and Facebook posts, which are quickly forgotten, there is a growing number of people who are looking for something different. That is been my impression, anyway.