If taking pictures old school on a roll of film is a way to slow things down, is there a better place to shoot than Bhutan, a nation partly rooted in a different era and yet also far ahead on the learning curve? Story and photographs by Christopher Kucway
Apr 21, 2020
In my viewfinder, I was all set for a photo course in majestic Bhutan. Then via long-distance, Michael Turek, the New York City-based photographer who leads an upcoming trip there, dropped a Himalayan-sized bomb on me. “Oh, the thing is,” he said, “you have to do this on film.”
Pausing, I told him the only film camera I still
own is a medium-format Mamiya 7II, a wonderful
piece of 6×7 technical simplicity—and one that I
hadn’t touched in a decade.
“That’s perfect,” Michael exclaimed, not knowing
the limits of my aging eyes. I was intimidated. “Great,
you should be,” he said, “but you need to have fun
with this, too.” He explained why film is the perfect
choice for Bhutan; how it’s more intentional; how
limiting parameters helps you become more creative;
why flaws and imperfections should enter the
equation. With that, he sent me off to Bhutan,
waiting to review my photos upon my return.
Truth be told, I could see how pixel-perfect digital photographs can get monotonous. Still, I wasn’t convinced that an intentionally blurry or undersaturated shot holds any merit. Until, that is, I picked up my camera again and encountered some high-altitude wisdom served with a side dish of momos and chili paste.
Advance to day two in Bhutan. After seeing me
shoot with both digital and film cameras, my guide
for the week, Sonam, a woman who is equal parts
unparalleled wisdom and non-stop hilarity, told me
she had it figured out. The digital camera, she said,
is very Western in temperment, aiming for
perfection, the risk being that the resulting photos
conform to a certain sameness. But, my Mamiya—
with its 120mm spool of film, manual demands and
the sheer fact of not knowing if a photograph has
turned out for at least a week—made her refer to my
film camera by a new name: Only Buddha Knows.
Especially after receiving Michael’s comments and critiques, which captions my following photos, I can say that Sonam was, as always, spot on.
First class isn’t the only way to fly. How about flatbeds, chefs and your own crew on one-of-a-kind trips that let you skip the customs line? Private-jet tours are taking well-heeled travelers for the most luxurious cultural exchanges.
If taking pictures old school on a roll of film is a way to slow things down, is there a better place to shoot than Bhutan, a nation partly rooted in a different era and yet also far ahead on the learning curve?