From fellow backpackers I’ve ever only heard great things about Iran and Iranians. Initially I was going to travel there in early 2020, however the pandemic shattered those plans real quick. I finally flew to Tehran in July 2022, almost two and a half years later. That delay has changed how I got to experience Iran quite a bit. In part because of the camera I ended up travelling with. Let me explain.
In 2020 I was just begining to shoot film. Strangely enough, the only film camera I had at a time was a large format camera for 4×5 sheet film. So had I gone to Iran back then, I would’ve taken my digital camera with me.
But a lot has changed over those two years. I’ve virtually stopped using digital camera. Instead, I began shooting with Rolleicord Vb and (purchased more recently) a Leica M2. Between those two, I’ve decided to take Rollei with me. I just enjoy using matte screen a lot, and I like simplicity and a challenge of having just one lens.
And that camera – Rolleicord – has given me so many memories in Iran!
The exotic looking camera like Rollei draws attention of almost everyone. This makes it a pretty terrible choice for photographers who want to be invisible. However, it also makes it a terrific conversation started and ice breaker. People are just very interested in it. Some want to know what it is in the first place: a stills camera? a video camera? an entirely different device? Some other folks share memories of using a TLR camera in the past. Some asked if they could hold it and take a selfie with it. Some even offered to buy it from me right there on the spot.
I could give countless examples of conversations that started only because of that Rollei. I’ve met a physicist how worked on Iranian nuclear program back in 70’s who used TLR cameras himself at the university. I’ve met Amin, a terrific cab driver from Yazd and a photographer himself, who having seen my camera brought his own from home and took a great photo of me climbing a dune on a desert – a great souvenir! I’ve meet bazaar merchant who showed me and old photo of himself using a Rollei camera couple of decades ago.
Sometimes a camera like this can also prove to be an asset from a purely photographic standpoint. One evening I was trying to photograph a tomb of Hafez in Shiraz. A very busy place, with crowd of folks paying respects to the great Persian poet. I’ve decided on a very long exposure in an attempt to blur out the crowd. Corrected for reciprocity failure, it was going to take seven minutes. While I was setting up a tripod, measuring light and mounting an ND filter, an Iranian named Behnoud walked over. Initially, he was interested in the camera. We started talking and in the meantime I’ve began the exposure. After only two minutes a security guard approached us. He didn’t speak English, but it was immediately obvious he wanted me to remove the tripod. But I still had five minutes to go… Behnoud, being a great guy, told me in English to relax and carry on. And he went on to chat with the guard in an attempt to buy me those precious minutes.
If all that sounds great, it’s because it was. However, it’s also worth remembering that travelling with just one medium format film camera comes with a price too. Price of film, sure. But also the inability to change film when light conditions change (unless one’s willing to waste a part of the unexposed roll) or being constrained to a single focal length. Just to name a few.
How much different that trip would’ve been had I gone to Iran in 2020 with a digital camera!