When My Camera was Stolen in Prague, or, How I Started Appreciating Film Photography
My First Trip Overseas
I had no job. I had very little money. I had a camera though, an early digital SLR. My last post-college internship was completed and it seemed that, even though times were lean, now would be a great time to head overseas. If not now, when? I’d long dreamed of traveling outside of the U.S. to explore the world outside of my comfort zone. It was important to me to travel to places where I didn’t know the language, in order to maximize my adventure. Being an only child and having my parents separate when I was in sixth grade, I figured out a lot daily life stuff on my own, I had to. This is important because I attribute it to why I’m most comfortable in completely unfamiliar environments. Also, it’s as close of a circumstance as I can think of that resembles what it’s like to be a kid, when everything is new and fresh.
Paris would be my first city explored, and it was a visual overload. Whatever I’d read and heard about Paris’s beauty, it was one thousand times more than that, maybe one million times more. Cafés looked like paintings with always-perfect light and people sipping wine; offering a contrast to the seemingly continuously-moving city life. A woman was hanging outside of her window, batting a broom against a rug while nearby, a cat cleaned its paws.
On one particular day, a protest parade was moving past a cafe. My photojournalism instincts kicking in, I ran to the front and began taking pictures. The photos were fantastic. I was getting close shots and felt invisible as I glided from spot to spot, composing. The protest was relating to a housing issue taking place at the time. Some of the protestors started talking to me in French, but I couldn’t understand. Being fairly good at communication, I figured they were saying something along the lines of, Who are you with?
My next stop was Prague. The plan was this: stay in Prague for a few days, travel to northern Czech Republic after that, then travel back to Prague to spend my final few days in Europe before departing for home. I had made plans to stay at different hostels in Prague to offer myself the ability to see different parts of the city. Also, if one hostel was terrible, I’d only be there a night.
The first hostel in Prague I stayed at was decent. The water everywhere was cold no matter what, though—the shower was brisk and refreshing. There was a basement dining area where the food was good. Wherever I went in Prague, techno music was playing. That basement in that first hostel, during breakfast, was no different. I was sipping coffee and eating yogurt to a sweet beat.
The Second Prague Hostel
The next day I walked over to what would be my second hostel. I checked in, walked up to my room and claimed my bed. I was the first one in the room. During the day I was walking around, making photos and eating kobliha (Czech pastry, sort of like a doughnut—they were unbelievably cheap and good). When the sun set, I made my way back to my room. I locked my camera gear in my room locker and stepped back out to grab a couple beers in town. When I arrived back in my room to find that I had two new roommates, a man and woman. From there, I’ll never forget the sequence of events. I introduced myself and we chatted briefly. Afterward, I went next door to the room to grab some crackers and cheese I’d picked up at a grocery store. When I returned to my room, the lock on my locker door was in pieces on the floor, the locker door wide open.
I reached in and my camera bag was gone. Heart immediately sinking and anger immediately taking hold, I ran outside to try and find the people that had taken my beloved camera. I didn’t even really care about the camera at that point, it was the images I wanted. No one was in sight. I went back inside and knocked on every door in the hostel to search the rooms, looking for the asshole culprits. Still no luck.
The next day, I made my way to the local police station to file a report. Pressing the intercom button only resulted in a buzzy Charlie Brown’s-teacher voice (in Czech) responding. The conversation went nowhere so I returned to the hostel to schedule a translator at the station, for the police report. The next day I was able to not only have my police report translated, but I was also given a free ride back to the hostel in a Czech police car—it was a station wagon the size of a Ford Escort—and be with the officers as they photographed the scene of broken lock parts at my hostel locker. That was as far as the police report went.
Time to Salvage the Trip
This is where I dug deep. There’s no way I was going to return home without quality images. Not only that, but I was determined to make important images that were meaningful. My Czech language book in hand, I made my way to the nearest camera store I could find. To this day, it was the most fantastic camera store I’d ever laid eyes upon. There were shelves and shelves of cameras.
There was an absolute language barrier as none of the workers at the camera store seemed to understand English and I didn’t understand much Czech—except for pivo, beer.
A man pointed at the clock which indicated it was 10 minutes before 5 o’clock. Damn, closing time was soon. Flipping frantically through my translator book, I found the words cheap and good; they were the first two words I could think of that described the type of camera I wanted. Three cameras were selected and displayed in front of me on a glass counter, all of them film cameras. After picking them up and inspecting them, the Canon TX 35mm SLR—with 50mm f/1.8 lens which didn’t fully work—was the one. I requested two rolls of black and white film for the transaction and walked out the door with a photographic hunger I’d never felt before.
The usage of film taught me many lessons. The primary lesson—slow down. By having limited frames available for exposure, I treated every press of the shutter button like it was the most precious frame in the world; because to me, it was.
Black and White Street Photography
My time was limited but I was a man on a serious photo mission. I spent the next two days doing nothing but taking street photos…with black and white film. As this “new” camera helped ease my anger of losing my last camera, I began to appreciate this concentrated effort to salvage photos before my departure. I was crazy focused and I was starting to be one with the 50mm lens. A 50mm lens is a “normal” field of view, so, it’s close to how you view scenes with your own eyes. This makes it an incredibly intuitive lens.
I’d set myself up on a street—somewhere with a perfect, beautiful backdrop of historical buildings—and simply wait for a person or people to enter the frame. There’d be a time, pre-stolen camera, when I’d be sometimes nervous to blatantly capture people during street photography. Not now though; it was as if I was possessed. You now what? I wasn’t approached one time by someone while I was making images. There’s a confidence mantra I created and believe in which is, If you act like you belong, you’ll belong. That mantra has, and does, serve me well.
After returning home to the States, I sent my rolls of film in for developing and when I received them back, I was elated. The frames had no light leaks and the moments and people I’d hoped to capture were captured. There’s a magazine called JPG Magazine that I submitted my images to and they ran them in their magazine. The thought of the images I lost still stings a bit, but by buying that film camera and slowing myself down, I captured Prague with heightened senses and patience that I still try to cull even today while I’m out photographing.
That photographic experience taught me that if I make images with a certain fire in my belly, the potential for amazing photographs is higher. Prague was fantastic and although I wish I had my original digital camera back, I can’t dispute the fact that I learned a lot about photography and myself. No hard feelings Prague, na zdraví (cheers).
P.S.-Because of the black and white film, also the 50mm lens, these images might look like they were taken in the early 20th century . I assure you, they were taken in the 21st century.
13 thoughts on “When My Camera was Stolen in Prague, or, How I Started Appreciating Film Photography”
This post is probably my favorite of the month so far. What a beautiful perspective to have gained from a truly painful situation. I will remember this the next time my day is thwarted by other people’s lunacy. Truly inspiring – thank you.
Thank you for your comment Heather. I’m so glad it is your favorite post; all my posts are meaningful to me but the subject matter of this one in particular was especially impactful. For me, it’s definitely a life lesson: When dealt with difficulty, we’re faced with choices and it’s up to us on how we react.
I love this story. Cameras, however expensive, are just things it is the images that hold real value. I don’t suppose they ever caught the crooks who did it. I suppose not.
I’ve often found the 50mm focal length paired with grainy — and often cheap — black and white film makes for a vintage feel. I remember visiting my Sister when she moved to southeastern Minnesota and shooting the trip on FomaPAN. I developed everything using caffenol and when scanned the results were unbelievably rich but felt of another world. I’ll have to dig that album out.
Hi Tobias, you’re exactly right, it’s the images. They never did catch the crooks, as far as I know. There’s supposed to be a way to track images posted online by camera serial number. I have the serial number of my stolen camera but nothing has surfaced. It’s been years since I’ve looked but I’ve resigned to moving forward, trying to make meaningful images and rarely leaving a camera out of sight when I travel.
What an amazing process you describe, using FomaPAN and caffenol. I’d love to see the results wherever possible.
I read your blog post about Kodak Gold 200 and it resonated with me deeply. When Portra isn’t in my camera it’s that film. It’s really special and although everyone has their favorite film for different scenarios, I’m amazed—after looking through my favorite film images—how many special shots I have that were taken on Kodak Gold 200. Thank you for your message Tobias.
“Wherever I went in Prague, techno music was playing. That basement in that first hostel, during breakfast, was no different. I was sipping coffee and eating yogurt to a sweet beat.”
Clearly you’re an amazing photographer. and you have been, for awhile it seems. But you’re a really good storyteller, too. That part cracked me up, lol 🙂
Thank you Jason! Your writing is exceptional so having a compliment like that from you means a lot. Prague is an interesting place and although it’s been a while since I’ve been there, I wanted to paint as clear a picture as possible as to what it was like; that techno breakfast will always stay with me.
Wow what a story and such beautiful shots! It’s funny how things work out sometimes. My favourite saying is “everything happens for a reason” and this post really incapsulates that! I’ve been into film photography for about 2 years now and I really want to get into street photography but I’ve always been nervous that someone would call me out for capturing them in a photo. I love what you said, “if you act like you belong, you’ll belong.” I will definitely be keeping that in mind next time I go out and shoot!
Thank you for your comment and compliment! It’s completely normal to be nervous during street photography; I still get nervous. What keeps me going is the possibility of wonderful images to be made. Encounters with people you’re photographing on the street can be varied but I always smile, ALWAYS be calm and polite and explain what I’m doing. Also, it helps to have something to say because if someone does approach you, you’ll be ready with a response. Something like: “I’m photographing for my portfolio and I really love this scene.” Be open and honest. Making images quickly is important, street scenes are fleeting. The part where I mention, “act like you belong,” this has worked well for me. Everyone has different approaches but this has been effective. I’m 6’4″ so I don’t really blend in when I’m taking photos on the street. So, I just put myself out there, I stand in the middle of the sidewalk or wherever and photograph. People are smart, they’ll see me, they’ll know I’m making pictures because that’s what I’m doing. When I make images that way, I am approached FAR less than when I try to sneak a photo. That’s just what works for me. With practice, you’ll find out what works for you.
Thank you for the tips! Will definitely keep them in mind next time I go out and shoot
You got some really great pictures here Keith!
Thank you Rob! I just made a stop over at your blog—fantastic! Well done, excellent photos. Your piece on photographing strangers especially resonated with me; it’s so extremely fun and rewarding. I look forward reading through some of your past posts, and looking forward to future ones.
oh what a story. btw. you’re very lucky that that Chech story had used film cameras to sell you. Today this action is almost impossible. Well maybe in Prague, but still i never saw there any photo store selling working film cameras as well as new cameras. Great images you photographed.
Thank you for your comment and for reading my story, Victor! The camera store was a scene and place forever frozen in my memory. It was like magic.
I love your blog! Keep up the excellent work!