New Business, Old Ideas [Pt 1]: The Cairo photo lab bringing film photography into the 21st century


Our New Business, Old Ideas series focuses our lens on newly established and highly creative businesses selling products and services as old as time, some even thought to have become obsolete. Yet with very inventive and innovative approaches, these businesses have found success and flourished.

Introducing our series is The Darkroom Cairo, a photography lab based in Downtown Cairo that specializes in the once-thought-to-be-extinct art of film photography. They sell film cameras and photographic film, but the heart of their business is all in the name: developing film in trays of chemicals in a darkroom.

The film photography market reached its peak in 2003, selling nearly a billion rolls. Manny Almeida, the president of Fujifilm’s (one of the world’s biggest and oldest imaging companies) imaging division in North America, told Time magazine in 2017 that film sales represented “roughly 2%” of those 2003 figures.

With the advent of digital cameras becoming more consumer-friendly and affordable around this time, film sales dropped almost 30% annually in the United States alone over the following four years.

In early 2004, Kodak, the legendary imaging company of the 20th century, announced it was going to cease all production of film cameras. In 2012, Kodak found itself filing for bankruptcy protection, changing the term “Kodak moment” from originally meaning a sentimental moment in time captured on celluloid to be treasured for years to come, to one meaning the fall from grace of a once dominating giant.

However, in recent years, the traditional format has witnessed a renaissance globally. Between 2014 and 2017, major companies such as Kodak and Fujifilm reported that film sales were growing again. In November 2019, Kodak reported that revenue from their film business increased by 21% in the previous quarter. Film stocks that were once discontinued have been returned to production, along with many new smaller boutique brands being established.

Egypt has been no outsider to this global trend, though. In 2017, photographer Mohamed Abdel Wahab established The Darkroom Cairo, initially as a non-profit to support Egypt’s small but significant film photography community. Apart from selling cameras, films and development services, the lab also offers courses and education on the medium, training a new generation traditional photography techniques and darkroom practices.

Boasting scanners which convert rolls of film into digital copies, The Darkroom Cairo brings a format with origins that stretch back almost 200 years into the 21st century.

Despite initially being founded as a center to serve a niche, The Darkroom Cairo quickly found itself attracting a relatively big clientele.

“When we started […] our goal was to serve the community. In the beginning, the goal was not to make a profit and for it to be a commercial project,” says Abdel Wahab. “However, the needs started to increase so we started to inject money into [more] chemicals and films and it transformed into a business with this increased demand. You can say it started as a non-profit but currently I cannot say that it is still a non-profit.”

The Darkroom Cairo started with just two people, Abdel Wahab included. Today, their team has grown to five people with a sixth person currently being trained. The lab shared office spaces in two previous locations in Mohandiseen and Maadi. “Now, we are in a place of our own in Downtown Cairo, so we have a bigger space to do more of what we want,” he says.

In the beginning, they were only developing a few rolls of film a week. Today, Abdel Wahab says they do not develop any less than 70 to 80 rolls per week, and their clientele has ballooned to around 4,000 regular customers, with business constantly coming in every single working day, all day. He joked that whenever they close the lab for a short holiday, it causes a crisis and the workload increases significantly.

In 2019, Abdel Wahab’s long-time friend, Mohamed ElMaymony, formerly a photojournalist with Shorouk newspaper as well as vice president of their photography department, joined The Darkroom Cairo’s team. He also previously worked part-time as the darkroom manager of another Cairo-based photography center, the Contemporary Image Collective (CIC).

Mohamed Abdel Wahab (Left) and Mohamed ElMaymony (Right)

Both Abdel Wahab and ElMaymony attribute their success and the revival of their much loved craft locally to global trends in film photography. Abdel Wahab says that many of their new customers come to them out of a desire to take “vintage-looking” photos. “They will see a perfect picture and they will say ‘no, this is too perfect. I do not want this perfection.’ So to them, imperfection is nicer.” Indeed, much of what has drawn younger generations to the format around the world is the desire to create the vintage look in their images authentically, as opposed to relying on an Instagram filter.

ElMaymony adds that the rising presence of film photography amongst celebrities is also feeding its revival. “Singers appear in music videos taking pictures with analog cameras and the pictures appear in the same music video. Celebrities are not just using film cameras; they are being photographed with film cameras.” He cites public figures, such as Asser Yassin, who share photos of themselves caught on film as one of the major reasons for its growing popularity in Egypt. “All of these factors contribute to the trend and brings people together to a new idea and increases its publicity. Even if some people were not into [film photography] to begin with, but then started to see it trending around them – that will bring a response [to demand].”

 

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However, they still face their fair share of obstacles. Despite these successes, The Darkroom Cairo is still not a highly profitable business. “The money that comes is spent on the operations and the materials […] so you can say [The Darkroom Cairo] pays for itself now. It still does not really make a profit. The money comes and we buy films and chemicals with it.”

Supplies of materials are a constant issue not just for them but for all film photographers in the country. “We faced a big problem with chemicals because there are no chemicals in Egypt. To go through the process of importing chemicals, it demands a lot of money and effort” and they require customs clearance, which is the main thorn in their side.

Abdel Wahab and ElMaymony both cite laws, regulations, customs and the high cost of importing materials as a significant block to their continued expansion and the realization of their full potential.

ElMaymony says that international suppliers still do not see Egypt as a viable market and the difficulties of exporting their products and materials to the country make it even more unattractive.

By the time chemicals they order from abroad arrive, they pay an additional 200% on its initial price, Abdel Wahab says. ElMaymony interjects with the fact that films and chemicals are always more expensive in Egypt than abroad due to customs and other bureaucratic processes they go through before they arrive. He mentions a person he knows who tried to order a bulk load of photographic film from abroad. Two and half months later and the country’s customs authority is still withholding it, pending the completion of bureaucratic procedures.

Despite these challenges, Abdel Wahab insists that enthusiasm for the medium will not stop, neither globally or in Egypt, citing the many new film producers that have sprung up in recent years. ElMaymony even suspects that it is only a matter of time before manufacturing of film cameras returns, if current demand and growth continues.

While they may not be turning significant profits at the moment, as long as they continue to enjoy what they are doing, Abdel Wahab says, he has no problem with the financial situation.

Photography by Tareq Selim.

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