One of the genres of photography that I admire the most is photojournalism. Being handed an assignment and having to tell a story, often in nothing more than photographs, can be a daunting challenge. It isn’t enough to come back with a handful of good-looking, technically correct images. If they don’t accurately illustrate what will entice viewers at first glance, you’ve probably failed at your task. While its aesthetics haven’t changed much over the decades, the technical side of photojournalism has gotten a lot easier with the advent of digital photography. Some photojournalists still like to challenge themselves occasionally by shooting their assignments on film, and we interviewed Lanna Apisukh for her personal insights and experiences on this.
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We’ve written numerous pieces about the endearing appeal of film photography and why its popularity is growing (despite film stock prices rising). But I do wonder what makes photojournalists want to shoot on film in the modern world. The ability to instantly review your shot and correct it wasn’t there some years ago with film. Today, you’re able to crop and reframe with high megapixel resolution cameras. Getting near noise-free images thanks to low light capabilities of newer sensors is commonplace now. With all these conveniences at our fingertips, you’d honestly wonder why anyone would shoot film these days. No more waiting for hours to develop your rolls; you click, and the image is automatically sent across in some instances. Why inconvenience and slow yourself down when doing assignments that carry deadlines. Some photojournalists I know, such as Shihab and Katarina Premfors, still shoot film at every given opportunity. I’ve seen Shihab carry along his 35mm cameras on his daily photo assignments and often snap away with these. Ask Katarina what her favorite camera is, and she’ll probably point to one of her many medium format analog cameras. Film and analog photography is still close to the heart of most of us who started our careers with it, and it’s probably not going away any time soon.
Despite studying photography and art history during her undergraduate years, Lanna Apisukh didn’t have a direct path to becoming a photojournalist. She didn’t consider herself talented enough to be one. However, life had different plans, and she’s now a full-time freelance photographer. She grabs every opportunity to shoot her photojournalism assignments using some of her film cameras.
The Essential Photo Gear Used by Lanna Apisukh
Lanna told us:
For personal projects, I prefer shooting with medium format film. I love the look of film and the way it interprets light and color. I also enjoy the slower process; everything feels a bit more precious and intentional with each frame. For my documentary project Everybody Skate that highlights the female and non-binary skateboarding community in New York City, I mostly used my Pentax 6×7 and a Bronica that I bought from my friend Justin Lin.
The Phoblographer: Hi Lanna. Please tell us about yourself and how you got into photography and photojournalism.
Lanna Apisukh: My path to becoming a working photographer wasn’t very direct, but I always loved making images as a young person. During my undergraduate years, I studied photography and art history, but I didn’t think I had the talent to ever become a professional or an artist. I really wanted to work in the media though, so I took jobs in a producer and marketing capacity in television, video production, and eventually tech for several years. My last full-time office job was working at an ad agency producing social media for a beauty brand. Photography was more of a hobby at the time, but I loved shooting and telling stories. Eventually, my boss at the agency took notice of my passion for photography and asked me if I wanted to photograph a beauty campaign and create visual content for the brand. I jumped at that opportunity, and it was a thrill! I was doing what I loved.
After gaining that experience of working with clients and a creative team, that gave me a feeling of validation in my work, and I ended up leaving the agency and pursued photography full-on. I even went back to school to gain more formal photo training at the Fashion Institute of Technology and took a ton of great workshops with BKC (community-focused photo classes in Brooklyn), which really helped me hone my vision and craft. In school, I was interested in fashion portraiture and documentary photography; I loved capturing people and a sense of place, which ultimately would lead me to becoming a portrait and documentary photographer. I’m now 100% freelancing as a photographer, and I shoot both commercial and editorial/news assignment work. I truly feel so much more fulfilled in my life and work now as a photographer archiving the culture and events of our time and having a real in-person connection with people through portraiture. I’m so grateful to have this privilege.
The Phoblographer: What are some of the creative challenges you face as a photojournalist?
Lanna Apisukh: For me, every shoot is a challenge because you’re often going into environments with bad lighting or crowded and cramped spaces you’ve never been to before, so you have to adapt quickly, which can sometimes be stressful. But it’s also part of the fun and excitement; making the best of what you have to work with and getting the shot, getting access to a person or a place you wouldn’t normally have without that passport of being the photographer.
Sometimes the challenge is going into a location where you may feel like an outsider. Fortunately, most of the editors I work with pick up on what subjects or communities I have experience photographing, and they’ll assign me something that’s in my wheelhouse. But there have been times where I’ve worked with clients that asked me to go into a neighborhood to document, where I’m feeling a little out of place because of a language barrier or something like that, which makes it hard to get the shots I want. In those situations, I will usually do extra research about the subject or location before the shoot. I take time to observe and engage with people in the community before I ever begin picking up my camera. I want to let them know that I’m there to tell their story and not there to do harm.
The Phoblographer: Where does the decision come from to use film for a particular photo assignment? Is this a personal choice or an editorial one?
Lanna Apisukh: For newspaper work, I mostly shoot with a digital camera since the deadlines come up quickly. I also shoot in such high volumes because oftentimes I’ll need to get a variety of shots. For example, I photograph a lot of restaurant profiles for The New York Times. For those, I’ll need beauty shots of the food, interiors, exteriors, cooking shots, diners eating, and portraits. It’s a lot. Shooting it all on film would get expensive real fast! But if it’s an assignment where the deadline is further out, and it makes sense for me to shoot it on film, then I’ll opt to do that. It’s a creative choice that photographers can suggest to their editors. Or sometimes it’s the other way around, where an editor knows you shoot film, and they’ll encourage you to go in that direction for a story. For example, last summer, I shot a big feature on female and non-binary skateboarders for The New York Times. My photo editor knew that I was shooting with film for my project ‘Everybody Skate,’ so he let me shoot the story all on film. It was truly a dream, and I’m so grateful to that editor who champions film photography and who was super supportive of my creative vision. And yes, the Times does cover all your film expenses when you’re on assignment, which is great!
If I get an assignment where I know I’ll be on the street or moving around a lot, then I’ll grab one of my Fujifilm mirrorless cameras like the X-T4 or X-Pro3 and a couple Fujifilm prime lenses (I mostly shoot with primes) since that system is compact and very responsive. I also find this system to be perfect for when I’m shooting BTS for film or television as I can set the camera to use an electronic shutter when I need to be quiet and stealth on set.
The Phoblographer: Do you sometimes find yourself looking at the back of your camera out of habit even while using a film camera on assignment? Do subjects look at you strangely when they ask to see a picture you’ve just shot, and you tell them it’s a film camera?
Lanna Apisukh: Yes! I’ve definitely caught myself looking at the back of my camera when shooting with film. It’s a funny habit. We are all so used to seeing everything instantly because of our iPhones and digital cameras. But looking down and reviewing too much can take you out of the moment, which is why shooting with film is so great. I’ve also experienced it the other way around, where my subjects asked to see their picture after I’ve photographed them on film. That happens to me with young folks at the skatepark sometimes. Sorry kid, you’ll just have to wait! But in the end, it’s always worth it.
The Phoblographer: Given the convenience of digital and instant image reviewing, why go the old school way of exposing and developing for an assignment?
Lanna Apisukh: I think it’s a creative choice you have to decide; does it make sense to shoot your subject on film?
If I’m covering a protest, for example, it might not make sense to shoot through a bunch of 120 film since things are moving so fast. But if it’s a special feature or portraits in a more controlled environment where I can compose my shots a bit more and I’m going for a certain look, then maybe it does?
I shot an assignment on film for Bust Magazine a couple years back. I chose to shoot my subject on film because the story was about a mother and daughter’s memories from the 60s and 70s that were captured with a Super-8 camera and made into a documentary. It just made sense to shoot that with film since so much of the story was told through analog footage.
The Phoblographer: How do you approach an assignment that requires the use of a film camera? Do you pre-plan a fair amount in advance?
Lanna Apisukh: I usually figure out which photo labs can process my film and turn it around quickly if the deadline is close. Then I’ll make sure I’ve got enough film in stock to shoot the assignment or project. I’ll also take an extra camera body just in case since one of them has failed on me before. It happens with these analog cameras that are over thirty or forty years old!
The Phoblographer: Which of your film assignments have been your personal favourites?
Lanna Apisukh: Shooting the New Skaters feature for The New York Times was an epic experience that I am so grateful to have had. I shot at seven skateparks all around New York City and connected with so many talented women and non-binary skaters in our community. It was truly my dream assignment because I was basically getting commissioned to shoot my passion project.
I also had the opportunity to closely collaborate with the photo editor, digital design team, and the writer, Jazmine Hughes, for this story. That gave me a bit of a window into how things work with these types of special projects.
Shortly following that story, I was able to follow Olympic skateboarder Alexis Sablone for a Sunday Routine. I ended up shooting with her inside her studio and playing basketball that day. It was cool to hang out with her for a day and see her in a different context. I was also very pleased with the way the film came out!
As for what’s next, I’m working on an ongoing project with my parents, who are retired senior citizens living in Florida. I’ve shot most of that project on film and some of it with digital. I’ll probably head back down there this year to get more of it on film; the light is just so good there!
The Phoblographer: For me it’s that satisfying clack of my camera’s shutter. What’s the biggest draw that keeps you shooting film?
Lanna Apisukh: The tactile feeling of a mechanical camera in my hands and hearing the loud mirror slap is definitely satisfying! It feels very real and human to me, versus having a computer in your hands. I also love the excitement when you get your scans back from the lab and everything is exposed perfectly, or when you develop your own film in a darkroom, and there’s good density in your negatives. That always feels extra rewarding to me.
The Phoblographer: In your opinion, why is film photography experiencing a resurgance among the youth? What has led to the misconception that photographers take up film photography these days just to look trendy and hip?
Lanna Apisukh: Social media has definitely inspired more young folks to shoot on film. Just look at #filmisnotdead on Instagram, and you’ll see millions of posts under that one hashtag. There are also a lot of film communities on IG and brands like Lomography that are continuing to produce new film stocks and getting young folks excited about analog photography. I think it’s awesome. But I think young people are also just naturally curious and attracted to things that are old or retro like records, especially now that we live in such a hyper-digital age where images can be uploaded to the internet in an instant. There is some romance in the slowness of analog photography, which I think people young and old appreciate even more now.
All images by Lanna Apisukh. Used with permission. Check out her website and Instagram page to see more of her work.