The first question that I’m always asked when people find out I worked in a photo lab, was whether or not I saw naked shots of people. I did. Sometimes often, with most of the times wishing I hadn’t. When I worked in the lab down by a neighbourhood populated by hip young couples and with a large gay population, nudity, hetero or homosexual photos were not uncommon. Still burnt on my retinas is the image of a three hundred pound woman wearing heavy-duty sado-maso gear and looking like she’s having the time of her life. Hey, to each their own and there is nothing wrong with any which way. I just don’t want to know what goes on behind the closed door of your bedroom. Be sensitive to who has to look at your photos.
Later, when I was moved to another lab where a large percentage of customers were of extremely rich Jewish or British heritage, the only photos we’d get would be tediously boring family shots, birthdays and bar mitzvahs. Some of these customers were so surprisingly bitter that you’d wonder if sex was even part of the equation anymore. Any occasional nudity was of the type the lab staff would gather around horrified but could not stop staring, such as the geriatric swinger’s party. At my third and last store, which sat on the border between low-income housing and an extremely rich area, it was a calmer mix between the first two.
When university became my life, it became imperative for me to find a stupid job in order to survive. By “stupid job” I mean the kind of job that gives you money, yet doesn’t require you to figure out the cure for cancer. Stupid jobs have the advantage of giving your brain time to recover from the copious amounts of bullshit it generated in your last assignment, have flexible hours, don’t need a degree in rocket science to perform, and provide you with a--albeit meagre--financial reward. Best of all if it lets you do as little as possible. That was my job in the photo lab in a nutshell.
I began working in the photo lab just as digital cameras were beginning to make their presence known. No longer was digital something associated with expensive, and more and more people in the four years I worked in the lab, began to show up with memory cards rather than film. To take advantage of this, the lab provided automated Kodak kiosks. Customers could put their memory card in, select the photos they wanted printed, choose sizes, type of paper and pick them up all within an hour. With the lab being part of a large grocery store, a customer could usually place their order, do their shopping and generally have their order ready for pick-up when they waltzed up to the checkout lanes.
There were several advantages of working in the photo lab. First of all, we had different uniforms from the rest of the store, which made us invisible to clueless customers desperately looking for staff. We wore a nice, perfectly fitting black golf-shirt with the logo of the lab above our heart. You could’ve comfortably walked home if you lacked a spare so nice they looked, an unusual thing for any uniform.
Plus, we had an out-of-the-way lab, and that’s where we hid because angry, spoiled, rich customers suck. Within our own enclosed space, it wasn’t long before we customized it to provide us with the benefit of tea, coffee, a microwave, a fridge (used to store control strips for the developer) and our own radio complete with i486-era PC speakers. Co-workers either hated the photo lab staff for being lazy (we did barely any work compared to any other department) or loved us. Those that did hang out in the lab enjoyed the various amenities it provided.
It’s not that we were lazy, but the work was really all done for you. Let me give you an example: when a customer dropped off film, it was categorized on whether or not it was a five-day service (cheaper and so we’d do it later) or one-hour (a little bit more expensive and we had to do it right away). The film would be taken to the lab, and we’d begin. Film would have the leading portion pulled out and cut, with the beginning of the film taped to a leader card, a piece of flexible yet indestructible piece of plastic we’d feed in the developer. We’d glue twin-checks numbers to the film and to the envelope to avoid any order confusion. The developer was nothing more than a machine that would run the film through the various chemicals, automatically adjusting temperature, pumping in chemicals and occasionally complaining when it was thirsty. In about five minutes, the perfectly developed and dried film would emerge on the other side ready for printing. We called that the developing process.
At the printing process, the film would be cut from the leader card, matched to its envelope and fed through the digital imaging machine (DI). This is also where we double-checked that paper type and size were correct. The DI would take the film and show us on the screen what the photo looked like, giving us the ability to do colour adjustment and some other minor tweaking: we didn’t have to, but we had the time to do it and a quality product made customers come back. Once the DI had learned how each photo should look, the order would be digitized and passed on the car-sized laser printer. Within two minutes for a regular film, the high-quality photos would be ready, the negatives cut and everything packaged together. Digital orders from the kiosks were even simpler, requiring only the push of a button. That’s why people hated us.
I’d try to be responsible and use the spare time to study for school or work on a paper. I said “try” because sometimes I’d do other things to avoid studying. Since we received Internet orders, I eventually broke out of the network’s locked-down state and managed to access the university’s library to handle my research. For the record, that’s highly illegal and should not be done lest you want to be laid off your job. I pushed my luck because of my noble educational causes, found a way to get the software needed on the locked-down computer we were given and really didn’t want to study.
To play it safe, I used a less-obvious text-only console, changing its colours and appearance to look identical as the order-management software the store used, down to the title of the window. If I forgot the window open, anyone walking by it would barely glance at it, making the assumption it was the same old merchandising program. Meanwhile I was building encrypted tunnels and redirecting traffic through a secure proxy elsewhere and could even browse, read my e-mail or check the status of bit-torrent downloads on a remote machine. I felt quite l33t.
It took three and a half years for me to get caught.
During one of those rare but particularly busy days, I left the terminal window open, when I get a phone call from the IT department handling the stores. The technician, perhaps bored, using remote-access software noticed the strange program on the screen and called. “Someone is checking their mail through the merchandising program!” he explained, confused as to how that was even possible. I felt a cold sweat run down my back as I understood I had been caught, but I kept my calm, trying to sound surprised and confused. While the tech was talking, I disconnected the Ethernet cable, removed any evidence while making “it’s not working” comments, plugged everything back together and complained that the screen looked fine to me. The tech’s confusion grew exponentially and from that day, checked the computer daily. We often could see the mouse’s cursor move by itself checking folders and processes. Meanwhile, I had moved my operation to the DI computer after ensuring no remote-access software was present.
The second question I’m also often asked is whether I saw some weird assed shit. I thought for sure that the three hundred pound woman wearing sado maso gear fell into this category, but apparently not so for some. The lab had a policy of no child pornography or bestiality (we were okay with consenting adults) and people were generally smarter than that. Albeit a zealous staff once called the police on parents that had taken photos of their naked baby splashing in a tub, there never was anything to be concerned about.
The most memorable (and only) event was an old guy that came once. He submitted several digital orders with photos of very young boys, mostly half-naked, doing athletic stuff. The strange part is that these were photos of other photos. It looked like he had taken photographs from the sixties and seventies, taped them to a wall as a collage and then taken a photo of that. This would’ve been weird, if questionable, but still okay technically since no wee-wees were showing. Until the naked photos of a type that looked highly illegal started coming out of the printer. The cops got involved but the man never came to collect his photos, nor was his name or phone number he had left with us valid.
The third question people want to know is what I would tell people when they’d come pick up their weird, naked or otherwise strange photos: I’d tell them absolutely nothing other than what was required in order to provide great customer service. It’s really none of my business what people decide to print, as long as it’s legal. If I was to make some comment about “hey, your tits looked really nice in that third shot, here let me show you which one I mean”, I’d lose not just a customer, but a stupid yet comfortable job as well. So I just served the customer like any other and instead provided the kind of customer service that appears genuine and respectable. The sooner they’d leave, the sooner I could go back to the comfort of the lab.
Let me tell you about customer service: it’s nothing more than a nicer way to say you need to stroke someone’s ego. People loved to talk and show off their photos and so I used the time to say “uh uh”, “that’s nice” and make random compliments about their techniques. This made them feel like they were trained professionals rather than the talentless hacks most proved to be. We all like to talk about ourselves but nobody likes to listen, so I practiced my listening, smiling and nodding skills. I learned quite a bit about photography thanks to this job and have picked up a couple of decent cameras myself, among which a trusty old film camera that gives some really impressive results. This gave me a respectable amount of knowledge that had customers treat me well for because it sounded like I had a clue as to what I was talking about when someone actually asked for advice.
Most importantly, a happy and satisfied customer who now thinks they’re the God of photography, can prove very useful. Management will never listen to staff when they’ll report a problem, such as to how it rained in the store when we had a storm outside, which is unfortunate. So I’d get customers to go and complain on my behalf. Get a bunch of them to speak to management and suddenly, the problem is not only fixed, but things generally improve.
The fourth and last question I’m often asked is whether or not I kept copies of any of the photos. With a job designed to be simple even for the lowest common denominators of society, I found I had a significant amount of spare time I was getting paid for. I used the excuse by making copies of the odd photo I found interesting, like those of a jet-plane graveyard in the middle of the Arizona desert, or of various unusual locales people had visited while on holiday. As well as other strange and bizarre things people do and take photos of, like the guy pretending to be attacked by lobsters. He had lobsters all over his body and face with a raised, gasping hand looking like he was asking for help.
I can hear the ethical dilemmas being raised about keeping copies of photos. There were rules that prohibited us from taking any photo with any faces on it. But if it was just a photo of a place or a thing that anyone armed with a camera could’ve taken, then it was grabs. That’s probably questionable too, but in my defence I’m causing no harm with them. Interestingly enough, after my answering their four questions, people will often say, “you should publish a book with all the photos,” they too skipping out on the legalities, never mind the ethics.
I now do what I learned at school, so I surrendered my position at the lab. As a memoir of those times, I have a gigantic Rubbermaid container filled with copies of photos collected over the years, particularly of places I hope to soon see myself. I plan on putting the most interesting ones in an album titled “Other People’s Lives”.
Photos that appear in this article are courtesy of fashion photographer Sisilia Piring and are used here with her direct permission.