This article is a recollection of my experience with a prolific and open online community for film photographers. It includes interview quotes from its founder as well as a few of its vocal members.
“Film is not dead it just smells funny.”
Photography’s digital revolution crushed analogue imaging. Most moved to DSLRs, then mobile and mirrorless. But not all were keen on cancelling the legacy and the future of film. Those who remained loyal to their aging analogue equipment and wet labs used the same technology that crushed film cameras to connect and promote them back into existence.
Faded by pixels, film was never forgotten. Thousands of blogs, forums, and podcasts showcasing the unique beauty of film sprung up since the 2010s. Eventually, it began trending on Instagram and the rest of the Internet once the celebrities (people who are undoubtedly familiar with the medium) started flashing their film cameras to the press.
This section’s title was borrowed from Frans Peter Verheyen’s blog, “Film is not dead it just smells funny,” which he started in 2004 — a play on Frank Zappa’s “Jazz isn’t dead. It just smells funny.”
A chance encounter with the online anglophone community for the sparse film users.
Though I was born in the analogue era, I got my first film camera in 2011. It was a blue Lomography Super Sampler — a whimsical plastic toy made by the chic European brand. I hadn’t thought of film much then though I remained interested.
A lot has happened since then, most notably a year-long backpacking trip across Asia with my wife-to-be. Eventually, we settled into our semi-permanent home in Chiang Mai and I decided to start shooting film again, having been forced to give it up after my Diana Mini broke at the foothill of Huangshan.
Lucky for me, I had a few helpful Thai friends who spoke English — they ran the labs and shared some of the “secrets” for taking better photos. Alas, I didn’t learn enough of the language to have a proper conversation.
Serendipitously, I found #BelieveInFilm. I think Chi may have introduced me to it; she inspired me to dive deeper into film photography with her magical images of flowers as I searched for ways to express myself creatively.
My attitude towards analogue photography changed from mild interest into adoration shortly after.
A community hashtag.
I like to think that #BelieveInFilm is uncool but useful. Other hashtags are for showing off or boasting but not engaging. I don't have as much time to spend on social media as I once did, but I always prioritize boosting tweets from people asking questions and people helping. That sort of engagement is meaningful and brings people back.
— Gordon Boddington, #BelieveInFilm founder.
Traditionally, hashtags are used online as a way to include posts into a discoverable stream under the same name. They are used by the posters in hopes of finding a greater audience or to highlight a made-up term. Popular hashtags get featured by the platform in the “trending” section, giving another boost to the participants.
The purpose of #BelieveInFilm is a little different, however. On Twitter, it’s a stream of photos taken on film cameras, but within that stream, you’ll find conversations and friendships budding. Questions, community chat groups, and camera boasting — the three pillars of online community held by a string of characters and its participants.
I like to joke that #BelieveInFilm is available wherever fine hashtags are used. Although a lot of the community discussion takes place on Twitter, the hashtag is used almost everywhere. For example, there are over 5 million photos tagged with #BelieveInFilm on Instagram.
Evidentially, Twitter turned out the be the ideal platform to host #BelieveInFilm conversations. It’s not as photography-centric or populous as Instagram which made casual interactions work really well. Plus, the open nature of the hashtag-based community, and, of course, the people, made it fantastically accessible.
Be nice. I have worked extremely hard to make sure everyone feels welcome, even on platforms famous for abuse. I have a strong memory of walking into a camera store in Florida and asking a newbie question only to have the person at the counter be extremely rude to me. I don’t like rude behavior, I don’t tolerate it, and I will not give it oxygen.
I still find it hard to believe how peaceful my experience on Twitter has been, considering how bad it proved to be for so many. Being a white cis male must’ve helped, yet I’m not the only one (see above) to say nice things about this corner of a platform known for toxicity.
A brief history of #BelieveInFilm.
When I asked Gordon about the roots of the community he found, he told me this:
Hi! I’m Gordon Boddington, and 10+ years ago, I founded #BelieveInFilm. At the time, I was working in human services, and I had just written a very large and successful grant that helped over 1,000 people flee domestic violence and or avoid homelessness. In addition, I was working on using technology to connect people online and offline, specifically around affording heating fuel.
The heating oil project was unsuccessful online, so I reused the software I had built to crowdsource a directory of photo labs that still process film. In the process of promoting the directory, I networked on Twitter and found that there was a rather large film photography community looking to connect. I used the successful offline aspects of my heating oil project to build a decentralized community that was more about people than products.
I also believed that I was trying to build something greater than myself. My goal has been to create something that would continue to grow even if I got tired of Twitter or was hit by a bus. The community has always been more about people helping people than sharing photos or promoting products. I think someone smarter than me would say it is mostly signal and very little noise. Those authentic connections are what make social media great. I’ve been having a hard time with the Twitter implosion, and the idea of losing easy access to all those awesome people is very hard for me to process.
…Some of our early successes as a community were convincing websites that articles about film photography’s survival could generate as many or more page views as articles about film’s imminent death. That was a huge win early on and paved the way for a lot of cool film-centric articles and content.
Twitter is in trouble. The alleged richest man in the world bought it, fired more than half the staff, reinstated abusive accounts, and caused an exodus of at least a million of its users. Some #BelieveInFilm participants left the platform also.
Nevertheless, the hashtag continues to thrive. As people begin to search for a new platform, #BeliveInFilm became a community beacon for the wondering film fanatics.
Morag created a post on Mastodon (an open-source Twitter alternative) that attracted and organized over a hundred newbies. I’ve been part of the group there for just over a week and thus far had a great time. Gordon’s there too.
And so instead of getting fragmented, we made a pact to seek each other out, wherever the Internet winds blow.
What does #BelieveInFilm mean for you, Gordon?
This is a tough one for me because I recently lost a family member after a protracted illness and I’m feeling a strong sense of grief over the idea of Twitter going away and losing contact with a lot of people. I’m in a deep photographic rut that I am only slowly emerging from and the community has really helped me get out of it but also discover new ways of being creative. Also, they send me cat photos and who doesn’t love cat photos?