A Secluded Film Haven
“If you want to learn what someone fears losing, watch what they photograph.” Or so they say. For learned photographers though, what they really fear losing is the film medium itself. When film was forced to take a backseat after the introduction of digital photography happened several years ago, many were quick to accuse millennial photographers of falling into the narcissistic trap of instant gratification. However, when you really think about it, film photography is an expensive hobby to maintain. There are many aspects to upkeeping it in comparison to taking photos using mobile phones and digital cameras, but seeing as photographs are essentially considered as physical memories, the end results are what should make it a worthy investment.
Financial aspect aside, film photography is an interest that requires effort, which is where a shop such as ROFLCAM becomes helpful. Here, people are able to learn the basic fundamentals of traditional cameras – from 35mms to polaroids – and understand film’s behaviour – what’s required for good composition, framing – free of charge. Customers also have the option of returning to the shop after finishing their first roll of film to discuss their progress with its owner.
This business began operations the same year 15-year-old Miley Cyrus was photographed by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair (remember the internet arguing if said photographs were “too racy” for a teenager? Good times), so naturally, it’s put its tripods in various buckets over the years – the bucket metaphor being local photography communities. ROFLCAM has built relationships with numerous movements that organise photo walks and photo bombing (more on this in the interview below) – if joining a group involved in such activities is of interest, trust ROFLCAM to steer you in the right direction.
The owner sources his products from all over the world. With several rare gems from flea markets in Tokyo and London, proudly displayed on high shelves, he unfortunately clarifies, “If it’s out of reach, it’s out of sale.” Still though, customers are welcomed to view such products granted that they’re within the store. Amongst the non-photography items that are on sale at ROFLCAM are vinyl records, Cheap Monday denim, and miscellaneous accessories.
Suffice it to say, ROFLCAM offers inspiration for photography enthusiasts looking to reacquaint themselves – or start a new relationship – with the art of film photography.
ROFLCAM is located at Lot TD23, Pasar Besar Awam TTDI, Jalan Damansara, Damansara, Kuala Lumpur.
O: 016 658 3656
E: [email protected]
The Unconventional Businessman
As we walked into the ROFLCAM store – or rather, a personal man-cave as owner Demang referred to it as – we noticed posters of Napalm Death, Nirvana, and Pantera framed on the walls. “This dude is probably a headbanger,” we thought. Then, we heard Black Sabbath playing in the background… “Ah, definitely a headbanger!” we said out loud. Thankfully, Demang wasn’t alarmed by our excitement, instead he reminisced the number of shows he’d been to around the region – most memorable one being the time a group of friends and he walked from Johor Bahru to Singapore to watch Nirvana perform in ’92. By the end of his gig-related stories, we stamped Demang as someone who needed to be spoken to – and so we did. Demang’s relationship with photography began after borrowing his father’s camera as a young boy to try his hand at being a photographer. Since then, he’s learnt to ‘speak’ analogue fluently, has created an extensive camera collection, and even opened a store in homage to his passion. JUICE spoke to the man about not capitalising on his hobby, running a business for a relatively inactive market, photo bombing, and many more.
How long has ROFLCAM been around?
Since 2008. The business was first managed online for two years, then I moved to my friend’s shop in Damansara Utama — Badger Malaysia — but they relocated to Shah Alam some time in 2014. So, when that happened, I got this place.
Why here though? It’s rather unexpected to find a camera shop in a hall that’s used for morning markets.
Because I live nearby (laughs). When I ran the business online, some customers asked for the cash on delivery (COD) method or asked for my help to teach them how to use the camera, but it was hard because I could only bring one camera and a couple of films during each visit – I can’t bring the entire stock. It’s good to have a place like this because it gives the customer an option; they can just come to the shop, look around, and learn. I even put some tables outside just in case people want to lepak lama. Sometimes the girls that come into the shop want to learn but the boyfriends want to smoke a cigarette outside (laughs).
So, what’s the reason behind your relationship with cameras?
My dad was a journalist for a small printing agency in Johor – Warta Johor as it was known back then. He used to bring his camera back to take photos of our family during kenduris, I used to borrow his camera to take photos with it myself. So, I started using film cameras since I was a child.
Why didn’t you want to be a full-time photographer then?
Because I have a full time job (laughs). I own an IT company – developing e-learning platform – which I started five years ago. There are three of us who manage it, and I’m the technical person behind it, which means I can do the work remotely and have the option of only going into the office on Mondays.
Ah, one should be so lucky.
It became a bit boring to work from home though, so having this place worked out because I spend the rest of the week here.
We strayed from the initial question — why didn’t you pursue a career in this field full time?
I don’t want to spoil the passion. When you go into something professionally, there’s pressure to excel or to convince people to like what you create, and I didn’t want that. I took it up for fun, and intend to continue doing it for fun until the film is no more.
A few years ago — maybe in 2010 — there was a resurgence of interest towards film photography with Lomo and Polaroid cameras regaining their popularity, but the hype has died down a fair bit. How have you managed to sustain the business?
Business has decreased a lot. I still have my regular customers but I rarely meet new buyers – people who are interested to try Lomography for fun – it’s not the way it was back in 2010 and 2011. Those days, you could find Lomography shops at many shopping malls – that’s not the case now. But honestly, I didn’t get into this for the money, it was mainly to keep the hobby alive.
Surely there must be a challenge in order to keep a store like this — that’s dedicated to a niche market — running smoothly.
It’s not that difficult to do. But the challenge though, is when I order products that get stopped by customs. Then, I’ll have to go to Sepang, KLIA’s or LCCT’s terminals, to declare the products, pay for tax, then return to the shop. That’s the only hassle I deal with, but I find the way to prevent that from happening is capping my orders at RM500.
Speaking of ordering products, you have to order items that are currently wanted in this market, correct? So, where’s the trend heading to currently?
Instant photographs — things like Fuji Instax were really popular — but it’s shifting towards Polaroid now. I think this is because Polaroid cameras are cheap — they are mostly pre-loved, so the cameras retail for less, but then its film is very expensive. Two years ago, a pack of eight slides cost RM70, and now it’s close to RM100. So, people are discouraged sebab kamera murah tapi filem mahal. It’s almost more than RM10 per photograph! I see it’s slowly dying but traditional cameras — 35mm — aren’t too affected, there are still people using it, just that I don’t see new collectors.
How do you persuade new people to join this community?
It’s not easy, it’s hard to convince them unless you show them what the results look like. That’s what Lomokids – a community of Lomography enthusiasts – are doing; they host an event and invite everyone to check it out so they’ll be able to see the difference between digital and film for themselves, then hopefully, that will create an interest.
What are the odds of the interest towards film photography increasing?
I believe it’s like life: Everything has its cycle. We can wait for the cycle to come back but something has to trigger it. Lomokids are celebrating their 10th year anniversary this year, they’re planning to do an exhibition or a photo walk to get the interest back and to reminisce the old days, like when we photo bombed Pudu before it was demolished.
Please elaborate on that story.
So, photographers were asked to bring some of their work, then we pasted it over Pudu’s walls, took photos of it, and took it down before DBKL came for us (laughs).
That sounds like it was a secretive project. How did you gather everyone?
We had a forum last time where we’d announce that we were doing something last minute, then we’d ask those whom were interested to bring their prints and disclose the location. Now, we keep in contact through Facebook. We work with a few other groups like Photo Rebel and ANalogueFreak, but we spread the word mostly through Facebook. We used to do it once a month.
How often do you have activities like this now?
Now everyone is married, has their own families, so, slow skit ah.
You have a fair amount of antique cameras. Where do you source them?
It’s not difficult to find if you know where to get it. Most of it can be purchased via eBay but because the currency is what is it, everything becomes more expensive. Take Polaroid films as an example, you can still get it fresh because it’s still being manufactured — I am one of its earliest pioneer-level members, so when they create a new emulsion for its film, I get to test the beta versions.
That’s pretty cool! Were you part of the Holga bandwagon?
I feel like people sometimes dilute the word ‘Lomo’ into anything that’s analogue or could be mistaken as any toy camera. I used to be one of the authorised sellers in Malaysia [for Lomography] when my shop was in Bandar Utama, and that was how we grew.
Initially there were three people behind ROFLCAM – Lola, Adam, and myself – but everybody became busy and tak concentrate… but here I am.
What is it about film that you are attracted to?
Film has soul, like when you look at photos of your grandparents, there’s something different about it; something that’s not found in digital photos, there’s a certain character to film photos. When people question why there are still some of us who prefer taking photos using film when we could take photos with phones instead, the answer is simple – it’s like painting; why draw a portrait when you can take a photo of the subject? It’s the process. I enjoy the process – from opening the film, to loading it into the camera, to developing the photos. I enjoy it more because I work in IT, so I’m constantly looking at the computer until my head hurts. So, this is how I find peace.