Written by 5:53 pm Arty Experiences

Working At A Photo Lab Is Unforgettable

working at a photo lab

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When I was younger and in University, I used to work at a Photo Lab in Bath. I knew a fair bit about photography thanks to my dad (who is obsessed with it) and I’d studied it a bit at art college. Being so naive and young, I didn’t realise the messed up things I would encounter while working at a photo lab. What didn’t help matters is that the lab was in a basement and looked spooky in and of itself. The experience was unforgettable, so I thought I’d write about the worst and craziest things that happened there.

The first messed up thing that happened was that I was told that the previous photo lab technician had been fired due to ‘indecent interests’. I had met this guy and he did seem a bit creepy to be honest… I was still surprised at the extent of it though. Not something I’m comfortable with repeating here so you’ll just have to trust me, it was disgusting.

I was doing all of this photo processing in around 2008/2009 and at that time, film cameras were still being used quite a lot. We had three services; film based processing, digital processing and passport photos. Stupid shit happened in every three of those services, so here are the best stories from each.

Story 1 – Perverts with Film Cameras

I knew I’d be seeing nude pictures from time to time in the photo lab. Maybe even nudist beaches. That’s not a big deal, it’s to be expected. What I didn’t expect was homemade BDSM p*rn.

It all started with my newer colleague, who I am going to be referring to as my assistant because I was still training him at the time. My assistant had accepted a roll of film from some big dude with a beard. The big dude had told him that there was some nudity on the film but didn’t say anything more. My assistant, being younger and even more naive than me didn’t question the beard guy. So off the beard guy went on his merry way and my assistant started processing the film. Beard guy would be returning the day after, which was my shift.

So I came in bright and sunny on a Saturday morning and saw a contact sheet stuck to the computer monitor in the lab. I can’t remember what the note my assistant left said exactly but basically it it was “sorry”. I picked up the contact sheet and brought it to my face, squinting to see what was in the tiny pictures.

It was appalling. Some fat old guy with a string holding up his d*ck. Then a woman with a coke can or something stuck inside her. One image after the other, each one more messed up than the last. Like I said, I was young and naive… I hadn’t seen most of this stuff before. I panicked. This same naked beard dude would be coming in that day expecting his BDSM photos and I wouldn’t be able to give them to him. I asked the managers if I should just print it anyway just to be over and done with it. They replied no and that I’d just have to politely explain that we don’t print BDSM p*rn at our photo lab. Not unreasonable I suppose.

So fat beard dude slithers down into the basement where my photo lab is. I recognise him instantly but pretend not to. It’s better to lie to yourself sometimes. I ask him what I can do for him and he tells me he has some photos to collect. “Oh do you really?” I reply. Still pretending I don’t know who the hell he is, I note down his order number and go to the back of the room to flick through some orders. Then with my best acting, I say “oh yes, I’m afraid I have some bad news about this one”.

Fat beard dude’s eyes go wide as I tell him that we can’t print his photos because they’re too obscene. He looks absolutely stunned. Like it’s a huge surprise… and he’s in the middle of getting very very angry with me. “Your colleague could have told me before you went and ruined all my photos!” – I explained to beard dude that my assistant had made a classic beginner blunder and that it wasn’t his fault because he’s still learning. Then I told beard dude that it wasn’t my decision to make but management’s. The last thing I told this bearded hippo was that his photos weren’t ruined but that he’d have to take them to another lab that doesn’t mind BDSM.

So with that, bondage beard dude went upstairs, shouted at management and then left the store.

I think the moral of this story is, keep your BDSM fantasies to yourself. Don’t force some poor university student to tell you that you’re too obscene for their photo lab. Or an even better idea… buy a DIGITAL – f*cking – camera. That’s the thing I still get annoyed by about this story. This was 2008 or 2009… not the fucking 80s. This guy could have easily bought a digital camera and kept his bad BDSM p*rn for his own private collection. None of us need to deal with that. So if you’re still out there somewhere beard dude, f*ck you.

Story 2 – Photoshopping camera shake

Again, this was 2008/2009… Photoshop wasn’t as advanced back then as it is now. We had it at the lab though and I was asked to use it occasionally to prepare people’s sh*tty photos for mugs etc. This story isn’t about mugs though, it’s about a guy who can’t stop shaking his damn camera.

It was a Saturday and an anxious old dude arrives down in the photo lab basement, he looks very embarrassed to be there and looks rather terrified. I try to put him at ease and find out what he wants. “I have these photos and I just couldn’t stop shaking the camera…” – I get a bit worried because I’m already picturing what he might have been doing to shake his camera. He reassures me that these are wedding photos of his daughter. Apparently this guy was so anxious at his daughter’s wedding that he couldn’t stop trembling and shaking the camera. He asks me to try doing something to reduce the shake and I say I’ll check the photos.

So I check anxious old dude’s photos on the computer while he’s still there (they’re all digital photos). His photos look absolutely terrible. Imagine the worst quality wedding photos you can ever think of having… that’s what this guy’s photos look like. It would be tempting to laugh at how bad they are but I also feel really sorry for him. He’s messed up his daughter’s wedding photos big time.

I was hoping he’d tell me that they had a professional photographer do some photos as well but apparently his were the main pictures. What a nightmare. I said to him that I’m not sure exactly what I can do about it but that I’d attempt fixing one of them, then send it to him to see if he’d like the lot done.

Over the next day, I use some free time at the lab to try photoshopping one of the guy’s horrendous blurred photos. I was using the clone tool in Photoshop to paint over the blur around people’s faces. Where there was image ghosting, I’d use the clone brush to paint over that too. It was pretty easy to paint around the edges of people’s faces and bodies. The harder part was photoshopping around eyes, noses etc. I looked at the finished test photo and while it was all looking sharper… it was a horrendous piece of sh*t. I would never in a million years want that in my photo collection. It looked like a weird semi-real photo of people with strange skin diseases. Horrible.. just horrible.

I emailed the photo over to anxious old dude thinking that he would reject it outright. To my surprise, I had a phone call a couple of minutes later and he told me excitedly that he was delighted with the photo. I warned him that it would take me a long time to photoshop them all and that it wasn’t going to be cheap. After all it wasn’t me who set prices, it was my bosses. I even told the old dude that I didn’t think the test looked very good. Anxious old dude was adamant though, he wanted all his blurred pictures photoshopped and he was going to surprise his daughter with them. What a hugely disappointing surprise that would turn out to be.

It’s wasn’t my job to tell people that their photos were too bad to bother attempting to save. I checked with my bosses if they think we should proceed or not and I was given the go-ahead. So over the following month, I did the same thing to all 50 or 60 of anxious dude’s photos. It took f*cking ages and knowing how excruciatingly bad they looked, it was painful to do.

Anxious old dude came in one last time after I was finished editing all of his photos. He’d asked me to print them too because he would give that album to his daughter as a surprise (she thought all her wedding photos were ruined). His photo album looked like a carnival of horrors. I felt sad watching anxious old dude go because he’d spent so much money doing those photos and I knew that all of them looked even more horrendous than they did when they were blurred. His daughter would have been mortified, there is no question about it.

I would have loved to be a fly on the wall the day he showed her those tragically horrendous photos. I have a sadistic streak you see, I can’t help it. I don’t necessarily enjoy other people’s suffering but still… I really really would have liked to see what his daughter’s reaction was to those horrific photos. Would she be overly polite and say thank you whilst fighting back a tear in her eye? Would she tear the photos to pieces and send him out of the house in anger? Would she be brutally honest and just tell him they looked even more sh*t than before? These questions haunt me. So if anxious old guy or his daughter ever finds this story, please let me know how it went.

Story 3 – Pensioners messing up their passport photos

At least eight times out of ten, pensioners would annoy me whenever they came into the photo lab to get a passport photo done. These old folks come in three styles. They are either disobedient, deaf or forget things two minutes after you tell them.

The thing is, passport photos back then still had a lot of restrictions and guidelines that had to be followed (like today). Rather than constantly f*ck their photos up in an automated machine, these old people would come to me so that I’d take them manually with a camera. That way, they could mess up as many times as they wanted without having to risk their photos getting rejected repeatedly. This part of my job was a nightmare. Often it would take 30 minutes to an hour to photograph them.

This is more a collection of stories than one specific one, because most of these pensioners fall into one of the three categories I mentioned.

The disobedient and demanding pensioner

Let’s take situation one, the disobedient pensioner. These would usually appear in the photo lab telling me they needed a passport photo “IMMEDIATELY”. No they cannot wait one hour for the print out, no they have no time for errors, no I can’t finish processing the film that is literally floating in chemicals as we speak. It has to be done and printed immediately or they are complaining to the manager.

This pensioner won’t listen to anything. I would tell them the rules of passport photos and they’d just think I was a twenty year old Welsh boy who knew nothing. I was in Bath after all, the eighteenth century city of sin. Jane Austin’s Las Vegas. Except nowadays it’s a posh, Georgian style city overrun by tourists and people like this pensioner.

I would tell them they needed to take their hat off, which was already an outrage. Then I’d tell them that they need to put their glasses back on because if they wear them all the time, then they need to wear them for the photo. Then finally after some pointless argument, they’d put their damn glasses back on. Sometimes I’d have to spend a lifetime explaining to someone why they can’t smile or turn their head to show their “best side”.

Heaven forbid if I made a mistake with the photo for one of these. I’d tell them I need to take another shot because the one I just did doesn’t look right. “Oh well you need to hurry up, I HAVE THINGS TO DO TODAY”. If they weren’t so old I’d feel like smashing the photo machine on their heads.

The deaf pensioner

Deaf pensioners are almost as bad as disobedient and obnoxious pensioners for passport photos. They can’t help the fact that they’re deaf but hell, you’d rather stick needles in your eyes than try to take a decent photo of them.

First of all, you need to yell everything at them. Basically shout at them. “Okay Mrs Neilson, go sit on the chair please.”… “What dear?!!”…. “SIT ON THE CHAIR!! THE CHAIR… SIT ON IT…. SIT ON THAT CHAIR OVER THERE.. SEE IT… YES THAT’S THE ONE. NOW SIT DOWN.”… “Here dear?”….. “YES SIT DOWN MRS NEILSON, THAT IS CORRECT. SIT ON THE CHAIR”.

The thing is, I’ve always had an inconvenient problem with speaking loudly (shouting). Whenever I raise my voice too much, I either sound drunk or very angry. Sometimes both at the same time. I can’t help it and that’s one of the reasons why I try to talk more quietly. Anyway, sometimes these deaf old pensioners would think I was getting angry with them and they’d start getting uncooperative. I could see it in their faces. They’d start frowning a bit at me and turning their head slightly, looking at me from the corner of their eyes. You know the look… the one when someone thinks you’re a piece of shit. I wouldn’t ever lose my temper with my clients so it really was always a misunderstanding.

“STOP SMILING!” was always an awkward thing to shout at these. Especially because I can’t help sounding angry when I’m not. I don’t like smiling at people for the sake of it either, so that hasn’t ever helped me in these situations. There are definitely some people who thanks to my time at the photo lab believe I get a kick out of bullying old people. I just don’t have a personality that is very compatible with old deaf people that’s all.

Inevitably, the deaf old pensioners would stop being able to hear me again while I explain everything to them. Only once did an old deaf person ever actually lose their temper with me. “Would you PLEASE speak up BOY!?” To be fair that wasn’t in the photo lab, it was somewhere else… but anyway, I shouldn’t deal with old deaf people. It’s not my strong point.

The forgetful pensioner

Dementia is a terrible disease. However I’ve also got ten rolls of film that were due an hour ago, a couple of people waiting for me to finish and now a forgetful old bat has come to have their passport photo done.

Obviously I have far more sympathy and respect for forgetful old people because they really can’t help forgetting things. They deserve respect and dignity rather than frustration and anger. I understand this, which is why I am not suitable at all to take passport photos of them. Like I’ve said before, I never lost my temper with any of these old folks. I’m just having a harmless b*tch about it. It’s been a long time and they’ve probably all popped their clogs by now anyway.

The most memorable forgetful pensioner I had in was one who kept getting distracted and looking somewhere over my shoulder. I’d get her attention again and try taking the photo. Then she’d forget she had to avoid smiling. Then she’d put her glasses back on and I had to tell her to take them off again. Then she’d ask me to read her the rules for the third time because it slipped her mind again.

I think it took me an hour to get that photo done. I wasn’t sure if she should be travelling anywhere to be honest but there you go… I got her passport photo done.

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