A monochromatic image appears from nothing as a small group bunches around the developing pan, struggling to see through the dim red light. “There! Magic!” one of the participants says. The hushed atmosphere is otherwise interrupted only by the clicking of changing apertures. A strong chemical scent reminiscent of vinegar is in the air. This is Darkroom.
The creation of Rothany Srun, a Khmer-American, and Olivier Bonifacia, a Montreal native, Darkroom is the capital’s new home for film photography lovers. The two met by chance when a mutual friend was selling a Soviet-era darkroom enlarger.
Disappointingly, Bonifacia found that it had already been sold. He tracked down the original owner, an elderly Khmer-Chinese man who owned a local camera store, and Bonifacia put a call out to a small group of analogue enthusiasts to let them know about the bounty of equipment.
At the store, he crossed paths with Srun, who happened to have bought that original enlarger and had come along to purchase more. Ideas to build a darkroom were sown that same day.
“All of us were big camera nerds and when we found these enlargers it was just like ‘Oh my god, this is great. Let’s start a dark room,” she says. “I was kind of serious, but I didn’t know if anyone else was.”
Bonifacia was soon on board after gauging the interest of some of his photographer friends.
Darkroom has since transformed into a communal space for anyone who enjoys the analogue photography process, with users coming along for monthly introduction workshops, simple day use or becoming members to work in the space at their own convenience.
“I like that someone is there using it and taking advantage of it and making it their own,” Srun says. “Because that’s what it should be. I don’t want it to be called ‘my darkroom’.’”
Bonifacia agrees, calling it a “community space”.
In a country where darkroom photo supplies are hard to come by, and where digital photography has far surpassed film in usage, the target audience is niche.
“It’s great for people who are already interested in film and who already shoot film,” Olivier says, adding that film beginners are also welcome. “Those of us who have been in a darkroom ... remember our first time. I love seeing the photo come out... And I get excited sharing that.”
The process of sourcing equipment has been a challenge. Three Russian enlargers were sourced from the attic of the original camera store, one was brought over from Canada, lenses have been shipped from Eastern Europe, a safelight from Germany, film from Malaysia and Bangkok, and sheets of paper from North America. This has become an obsession for Srun.
“Every time I travel now I’m going to old photo stores, which I didn’t really used to do, but now I’m looking online and finding out where I can buy film, or old camera or enlarger equipment,” she said. “These people will sit there and show me their old cameras and how they work. It’s caused me to talk to so many different people from different places, and it’s a fun detour from my vacation.”
Daily rates are $7, which includes use of chemicals. Monthly rates are $35 and a pass for 10 visits is $60. The Darkroom is located at #15 Street 300, at the northeast corner of Street 113. Contact can be made via the website or via the Facebook page Darkroom Phnom Penh.