Thursday, October 3, 2013

From Manila to Singapore: An Interview with Film Photographer Hanna Varela

Interview by Erin Emocling
Photos by Hanna Varela

1. Hi, Hanna! Tell us about your hometown in the Philippines and your current location and occupation.

Hello! I grew up in Manila, in Parañaque City to be specific. It's more or less your average city neighbourhood. I practically lived there all my life.  I moved to Singapore nearly 2 years ago to work as a psychiatric nurse. It’s a really challenging job. I find it an equally terrifying and exciting field to work in. Film photography is pretty much what keeps me sane.

2. Tell us about the story on how and when you started with film photography. What was your first camera?

I’ve been doing film photography for nearly 4 years. It all started with this photo I saw in a magazine. The funny thing is I can’t even remember now what it was. The only thing I could recall was how I felt when I saw it. I was completely awed by how beautiful it was. When I read the article and found out it was taken using a film camera, I told myself I just HAD to learn how to take such a photo. My first shots were so terrible that I nearly gave up because I didn’t know the first thing about film photography. I really had to struggle to learn. Eventually, I worked my way through it with the help of such awesome friends who share the same hobby.

My first camera was a purple baby Holga. It was a pleasant surprise because I casually mentioned about considering getting a film camera and someone gave it to me as a present. I didn’t get to use it much though, because I found it hard to get my hands on 110 films at that time. I probably used just about three rolls and that was it. After some time I got myself a Diana F+ and it all just went crazy after that!

3. What are your distinct approaches and styles? What are your usual subjects and themes?

Most of the time I just shoot random things. I’m quite fond, however, of taking photos of my feet/other people’s feet. I realized I had them in nearly every roll I shoot. Haha. I also enjoy using expired films because you never know exactly how they’re going to turn out, which explains the cycle of quirky shades of colors in my photos.

Just late last year, I started shooting with a friend of mine who agreed to model for me. We came up with some pretty odd but interesting stuff. Here’s a link to one of the sets we did called "Death goes on a Holiday."

4. Why do you choose film over digital?

Ah yes, the eternal question. I just love the anticipation plus the sprinkle of anxiety that builds up in me as I wait for my photos to get processed. There’s also that sweet element of surprise when you get your photos back from the lab and the immense sense of gratification when they actually do come out the way you wanted them to, if not even better. Of course sometimes you don’t get exactly what you want, which is inevitably part of the whole process.

Given a limited number of frames makes you extra cautious in shooting a roll of film. You value every shot and you give it your best rather than taking several photos of the same thing and picking out the best one. I just feel that there’s more depth and meaning to a film photograph.

5. How does taking pictures in the Philippines and Singapore differ? Are there specific things that you miss not being around in your part of the globe right now?

When I lived in Manila, I didn’t take photos as much as I do now. Partly because I was pretty much on my own when I started off and I really didn’t know where to find films and such.

Another thing would be, in my home country everything I see is familiar to me. I don’t always find that urge to snap a photo because the things around me are what I see every day. Now that I live in Singapore I find joy in taking photos of the simplest things like street signs, temples and strangers which are of course relatively ordinary but are interesting subjects to a foreigner like me.

What I probably miss about the Philippines when it comes to taking photos, are those subjects that distinctly remind me of home like jeepneys, certain historical landmarks in Manila and of course the film camera loving friends I’ve made there who I make it a point to shoot or simply just get together with when I come to visit.

6. If you could teleport to your home country right now, where would you go and take pictures? Why?

I’d probably teleport up north to Vigan, Ilocos Sur. I’ve been there once a couple of years ago but I wasn’t able to bring a film camera with me then.

What I really loved about that place besides the food (haha), was the well preserved historical architecture. It just took my breath away. I felt like I was being transported back in time as I walked down the cobbled streets and looked up at those lovely old houses. There was also this gorgeous lighthouse we went up to and those massive windmills by the sea. I’d give anything to go back and capture it all on film.

7. How does living in another country broaden your interest and hone your skills in film photography?

Personally, at first it was just about finding some kind of diversion from being homesick and trying to keep myself from looking for everything that I was used to. Eventually it grew way deeper than just that. From something I simply wanted to learn, into a hobby I now feel very passionate about.

I’ve always been fond of learning about different places, its people as well as their beliefs. Singapore has an exquisite fusion of cultural diversity. The best way I felt at home and got acquainted to all that was through the eyes of a film camera. I take one with me nearly everywhere I go.

Apart from that, I met so many amazing and talented people here who share the same love for film photography. Their work and they themselves have been in some way influential and inspiring to me.

8. What do you do during your idle time? What are your personal interests?

I love going to museums and getting lost in history. I enjoy trying to decipher the message or emotion that another person is trying to convey through his artwork.

Besides film photography, I like to illustrate. There’s a monthly event held at a museum that I regularly attend with a group of various artists. People come in to get their portraits done and they can buy them if they want to. I do it mostly for the kicks but it’s really great when someone actually appreciates and purchases your work.

Most of the time, I just make different sorts of art at home for fun. Recently, I’ve grown quite fond of painting my own footwear.

9. Tell us 3 quirky facts about you.

(1) I have quite a huge collection of beer bottles from all over the world. Contributions are very much welcome, thank you very much, haha, (2) I love Indian curry so much I could eat it for the rest of my life, and (3) I sometimes dream in Velvia.

10. What film photography-related projects are you currently working on?

There is a plan to do a fashion shoot on film in collaboration with another film photographer and a local vintage clothing store here in Singapore but unfortunately, we still haven’t found the time to push through with it because of the conflict in our work schedules.

I also have a couple of film swaps that I have lined up with photographers from Singapore and from the other side of the planet as well, which I’m really excited about.

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