Parents and Portraits with Film Photographer Han Phan

Parents and Portraits with Film Photographer Han Phan

1958 2400 Danielle Wrobleski

Han Phan is a film photographer based out of the Bay Area whose work I’ve been fangirling over for several years now. She captures stunningly intimate and organic portraits of her parents and family life. Beyond her skills behind the camera, Han is also a talented wordsmith. Many of her photos are shared with the most heartfelt and heart wrenching prose about her and her family’s experiences.

I’m so honored that she took the time out of her busy life to talk with me. We chatted about everything from the ridiculous prices of film to the urgency of preserving moments with the people we love. Our time together helped me realize my own desire to preserve the people and places I hold dear and I hope you find our conversation and her photos as inspiring as I do.

Can you start off by giving us a brief introduction to yourself?

I’m Han Phan. Last name is pronounced “Fan” even though my Instagram says it’s “Fawn.” I am now exclusively a medium format and large format film photographer. I fell into that niche and it’s been pretty good thus far. In regards to what I’m shooting, I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure that out. That’s me! If I’m not photographing, I’m probably reading.

What initially got you into film photography and why do you keep shooting film?

It was exclusively my dad. For as long as I can remember growing up it was him with some kind of camera pointed in our faces. I know that he was an amateur photographer when he was in Vietnam. He’s told me about how it took him years to save up money to buy his first nice analog camera. It was, I believe, a Nikon FG or something like that. And then he slowly progressed into the FM’s, and FM2’s. I have all those now, he gave them all to me. He was always around and taking photos of us. I’m very thankful for that because now I have all these photographs of my youth, and I get to look back on them. Ever since I can remember he’s been subtly pushing film on me, like growing up he gave me the disposable point and shoots and then bought me a Polaroid camera. Then we got into the digital age so he bought me the Canon point and shoots. I was always that person in our group of friends who had a camera.

I took a huge hiatus from shooting in general, but then picked it up again in college when I shot for our newspaper. It all sparked up again when I went home and all of a sudden all my friends were shooting film, and I was like “wait what year is this??” They all had film cameras now. It was bananas, so I asked my dad if he still had his Nikon cameras and he did. So huge credit to my dad. He was always an inspiration.

Looking at our photos growing up, they were so organic. There was no “pose here, do this.” I feel like that’s why I continue to be obsessed with capturing organic, raw moments. I’m terrible at it, but that doesn’t mean I won’t try. It’s wanting to preserve and memorialize the people every day that I choose to give my time to. So that in five years, or even five days from now I can look back and think “remember that time, it was great.” It’s really preservation that’s why we shoot whatever it is we shoot, like our neighborhoods for instance. Like my neighborhood growing up doesn’t look anything like it does now.

The people in our lives, our parents, it’s important to have photographic mementos of them.

I love the stunning portraits of your parents that you post, along with beautifully written details about your family life and their experiences here in America. How has your family life shaped you as a photographer?

It’s affected me a lot. I feel like those are the realest, proudest photos I take of my family around their home. I think it’s kind of the reverse of how it’s affected me. It’s kind of, for me, a lack of family in my life that drives me to take more photos of them.

I live in Northern California and my parents live in Southern California. It’s only about a six hour drive away, but it still doesn’t mean I’m afforded time with them. I only get to see them maybe once every three or four months, and maybe for two or three days at a time, at most. I feel like when I’m there it’s almost a selfish, greedy desire to capture everything, to want to photograph things so I can remember them, or so I have more photos of my parents.

I don’t know how this developed. Growing up I didn’t have the best relationship with my parents. I have gaps in my memory where I spent time with them or they weren’t huge figures in my life. Like when I was a teenager or when I was in college because they were working their butts off, or I just didn’t want to be around them, you know, like you think your parents are your worst enemies.

It didn’t make any sense. They were my sole providers and worked so hard to give me the life I have now. But I was so anti-family, now I have to make up for that for all the time I lost and all the times I pushed them away. Now I just want to embrace them and anything and everything they can tell me about their struggles and our home life growing up. I would say it has affected my photography a lot because I feel like when I’m home and photographing them, those photos are the proudest I’ve made. They feel like the most important ones.

Do you envision long term that you will keep documenting your parents for the rest of your life?

Yeah, I was thinking about that recently. It’s like a finite but infinite project, in that for as long as I can and for as long as they are around I will be working on this project. I thought originally I’d love to put together a photo-book, at least for myself, that I can look back on and reflect. But I feel like it’s always going to be a working body, something I’m going to want to photograph because they’re still here. And it would be cool if they’re here for a very long time and I can continue to work on it. But obviously they are not going to be around forever, so as much as I can and for as long as I can I will be working on this.

How do your parents feel about the project, and has it evolved at all as a response to their feelings?

It first started out as me just wanting to see how far I could push my parents before they thought it was annoying. Also, you have to know this about my mom, she is such a ham. She thrives in front of the camera. And my dad, as a photographer, loves it. So that, coupled with her being a hoarder and having tons of clothes, I thought would be one of the projects. Her in every single garment she owns. It’ll just be a thousand pages of weird clothes she’s wearing. But it ended up being so forced. I hated the photos that came out of it, just me being like “Can you stand here, pose like this.” 

That changed the first time I ever photographed them and felt proud of it. It was her in her bathrobe cleaning the yard, and I just told her “Look up, smile” and took the photo. And I love that. And that’s how it’s changed.

In regards to their reception. She hates it when it is organic. But I love it, because that’s you in this moment. Whether you’re angry or caught off guard. My mom is always like “Let me curl my hair, put on earrings. Oh and pose me here.” So then she’s trying to direct me on how to direct her, and I just want her to be natural. Then she asks me to show her the photos I post online and she’ll be like, “What, I only got 300 likes??” Mom! You’re crazy! Look at this one, you got 1,000 likes. She’s hilarious.

As for my dad, on the other hand, he’s a photographer so he’ll be asking why am I having him sit a certain way or why I’m taking photos of him. But it’s really fun. They’re really supportive and used to it by this point. I really appreciate it. I’m working on how to translate what I write, so I can tell them. Me and my broken Chinese, I’m able to tell them what I was writing about but not a true translation of it yet.

Since you mentioned the writing aspect of your posts. Not only are your photos stunning, but you also post the beautiful prose and story behind the photos. What is the connection for you with words and photos?

I think I take more pride when people compliment me on my writing. So I think in that sense I would consider myself more of a writer than a photographer. But honestly, I’m neither. But on my phone I just have a ton of notes. Like sometimes I won’t be able to sleep so I’ll just re-write or it’ll be just word vomit. With the pieces with my parents, half the stuff is pre-written. Then if a photograph fits what I already wrote then I’ll finish the piece I already wrote, or I’ll write something specifically for it. Initially I felt every photo I took had to have something so deep and eloquent. And sometimes, like, it’s a photo of a sunrise. It’ll happen again. Yes, it’s beautiful but I don’t need to be deep or introspective about it.

But I feel like with the images of my parents, it’s so natural. For me, it’s kind of figuring out my lineage and my parents, so it’s therapeutic just writing. That’s what a lot of this is. Figuring things out by writing it down. And [the motivation is not] so I can post it and people can like it. Like, that one post where I didn’t know my grandma had the experience she did with the French soldiers. My mom just made an off-handed comment about how she shouldn’t really be here and how her dad wasn’t really her dad, her brothers aren’t her brothers. I was like, what?! And then she explained how grandma was assaulted, and how she was the product of it. I was like, hold up, we need to talk about this. But she didn’t really want to. So I needed to process that and write about it.

So yeah, I would say writing is very meaningful to me and very therapeutic. If it’s befitting of what I wrote or it’s a photo that means something to me, I’ll write something. But if I force it, nothing comes out. The theme is just very organic.

What was the evolution of 35mm to now focusing primarily on medium and large format?

My dad really believed you could only learn how to use a camera if everything is manual, so he really encouraged me to try the Nikons. But I just wanted a point and shoot. I wanted something easy and fast, set it and forget it. I didn’t really care. Then looking back on my first 10-15 rolls on the point and shoots, I realized all that stuff kind of sucked. I thought I was making cool photos, but it was really just me thinking I was the shit because I was shooting film. I think we get in our heads a lot about that stuff. I didn’t really connect with the 35mm work. I couldn’t fathom taking so many photos. So what I ended up doing was blowing through them on stupid things. I couldn’t really connect with it.

It was purely accidental that I got into medium format. I was on eBay and had purchased a roll of Lomography film. I thought I ordered 35mm but they shipped me 120 and I was like, “What is this??” I remember even leaving a three star review because I was frustrated at not getting 35mm. But lo and behold I should go back and give that guy five stars now! At the time I borrowed a camera to shoot it, a Mamiya RB67. The HEAVIEST camera you could possibly own. I put the roll through and I got the results back from the lab, and was like, “OH CRAP”. That just ruined me forever. It was so great. And because it was just 10 photos, I had to really think about what I wanted to photograph. It was a lot better because it slowed me down. Before I had just been walking around downtown San Francisco and just blowing rolls of 35mm on things that didn’t matter. With this, I was really, really slowed down. I really cared about the photographs I was taking. I almost immediately abandoned shooting 35mm, and went exclusively medium format. Which is still my main format, only because large format is so expensive. It’s been good, I’ve been so happy. I finally have teased out which cameras do and do not work. I’m just rotating on two medium formats now.

Which two are those?

The Pentax 67 will always be my baby. I love it so much. And the Mamiya 645.

You mentioned that you are still figuring out what you like to shoot, but you obviously like shooting portraits. What draws you to shooting people vs. other subjects?

About two years ago I went on Instagram and declared “I am going to be a good portrait photographer!” It felt like the bane of my existence. I feel like I’m better now, but not the best. You can see in my photos it’s frequently people standing in the middle and they’re not really posing. It’s mainly, “Let me get a photo of you”. For me, that’s what matters and it’s not so much the pose. It’s not so much the portrait itself, but the people. You can see I do have a lot of the same people that I re-post. Again, that’s who I choose to give my time to, it means a lot to me. Taking their portraits and having a photo of them at this place where we did something together, that means more to me and these portraits are for me. It’s memorializing them and our time together. Having something to show for it, I guess.

That’s why I’m drawn to portraits, it’s about my relationship with these people. But man, it’s hard. There’s people out here taking amazing editorial shots of people, or making photos that are so emotive that tell a story just looking at them. That’s the level I want to get to. Still working on it! Will forever be working on it.

I’ve noticed your subjects seem so comfortable in front of your camera. Do you do anything to help people feel at ease in front of your lens? 

I think it has to do with getting to know people first. It’s cool to take portraits of strangers, because they look really nice or you want to capture their aura. But it’s also so important to build a relationship with someone before capturing their photo, because it is so intimate. Like I mentioned, a lot of the people featured in my work are friends and people I’m really comfortable with. I’m really happy you’re able to feel that between me and this person and our sense of trust in the photos.

Of the photos you’ve taken, what is your most impactful photo?

Probably photos I’ve taken of my parents. Maybe more so of my mom, because we’re so close. My mom is my best friend, she’s the love of my life. It’s a huge fear when I lose her it will be the end of me. Any photos I have of her mean so much to me. It’s always the ones where she’s caught off guard or I make her laugh and get a photo of that.

There’s one I took with my Mamiya 645 and her glasses are sitting on the edge of her nose and she’s cheesing. She had just finished grabbing some lemons off the lemon trees and I snuck up on her. Things like that, where she’s in her natural element. It’s just like, that’s my mom. She’s a happy person. She’s the light of my life. She makes me so happy. Any photos that emit that kind of feeling for me are my most meaningful and they impact me emotionally a lot.

Is there anything you feel like you’ve struggled with in photography that you’ve overcome?

You know, I could make up something and be super deep, but honestly no. I don’t think so. Photography isn’t that serious for me. If I make a photo, I make a photo. If it’s great, it’s great. If it’s not, I’ll just throw it away and never think of it again.

But I think if I had to pinpoint the most challenging part, it would come down to how expensive things are. That’s just it. I would have no qualms about this hobby if things were affordable. My partner and I are trying to save to buy a house, and once we became serious about wanting to get a house I realized I couldn’t buy film and camera gear any more, until we at least get an accepted offer. And I’ve saved so much money! It’s so stupid. Oh my gosh, this is where all my money is going? Literally, it’s just being sunk into this hobby that’s never going to make me money. But I enjoy it. It’s so challenging in that I want to save money, of course, but at the same time I want the cameras I think are fun and I want all the film!

And one day I won’t be able to afford it anymore. So that really is the most challenging part of this. I’ve calculated it, Portra is $13-14 a roll now. I gave up on developing film myself, the colors were always terrible. So I send everything to a lab and scan my film myself to save some money. But sometimes I don’t have the time and energy, so I pay for the lab to do both, so then it’s like $16 for developing and scan, and then you’re paying for like $30 for a single roll of film start to finish. I can’t do that! That’s bananas. I want a baby, and we cannot afford to have a kid when their formula is $30+. This is just nuts. Sometimes I just have to break it down and focus on real life things and what I could afford instead. It’s so sad. $55 for a pro-pack, or half of a one-way ticket to see my parents? Oh man, this is really not fun when you sit down and think of these costs.

What female or non-binary photographers are inspirational to you?

Oh Hannah Films! She’s amazing, and oh my gosh super cool too. I love her landscape photos. I don’t know how she gets the dreamiest and richest colors. Her photos are what I want my landscape photos to look like. Also there’s a couple that do predominantly story telling of the queer community. They’re known as Allie and Jesse on Instagram. They make really beautiful portraits. One of my most favorite ones of theirs was a boxer who had transitioned from female to male, and they followed their story, how they transitioned, and what they look like now. It was riveting. It was so cool.

When people take photos like that, I wonder how they make those connections? Because it’s so intimate and personal. They were able to connect with this person and they were comfortable enough to let them tell their story. That’s what Allie and Jesse do.

Obviously Sara Messinger. She’s amazing. I just discovered her. She’s based in New York and she does these photos, where they feel almost just like photos you take of your friends just hanging out but they are punchy and raw. The people she is photographing are like the cool punks or the misfit kids in high school you wished you could have talked to. All her photos are of people like that. Very raw. And I wonder how she evokes these emotions. Literally I have a whole list of people. Lindsay Perryman, they are so so good. Their portraits are super dynamic and powerful.

From the past, but Mary Mark Ellen. I bought a three book set of her work and after going through it I couldn’t photograph for months. I was just like, what am I doing? Her whole thing is she ingratiates herself into her subjects’ lives. She spent months in India photographing sex workers. I don’t even think it was an assignment. It was just her wanting to know about these people and their lives and that she wanted to photograph them. She spends time building up these relationships and making people feel comfortable. She takes these amazing photos that are just dripping with emotion. It evokes so much from just looking at it. That definitely made me pause and reevaluate things. I’m such a fan of her work.

Also, Aly’s Vintage Camera Alley, Shay of the Arts, and Liz Potter! And oh Jess Hobbs. She’s amazing. She’s actually the reason I’m now diving into modified cameras for instant film. All these women, like Jessie Tepper, Film by Kait, Chris Bartolucci, it’s been such a welcoming group of people that have been so supportive. Not just of me, but of everyone and of each other. There’s no gatekeeping. Also, Vania Francesca, she’s been so helpful in talking about quick loads and ready loads, and learning about how she does things.

Just looking at everyone’s work is so motivating. It makes me want to continue making good photos. It’s so invigorating seeing women and non-binary people be represented in this community. It sucks when it gets so loud with people trying to make a point that there couldn’t possibly be 50% of the film photography population be these people, that they think it’s all white men. It really sucks, because I could go on and on listing these people. It sucks that there are people who don’t believe there’s equal numbers of all these different kinds of photographers. But it’s so empowering to see all these feature pages pop up that aren’t just featuring cis-white men. I love it, it’s so cool. I’m glad more people are becoming aware of this. I hope it continues and we start becoming louder voices!

As we wrap up, what big projects are you working on?

Not so much projects, but I’ve gotten to a point where I’m comfortable with medium and large format and now I feel like, what else should I throw my money at? There’s a discord called Film and Filaments, or something like that, it’s a bunch of smart people modifying or designing their own 3D printed cameras so you can take instant photos. Polaroids are so expensive! People are upgrading and making those things at more affordable prices. I’m printing one right now that will work with a Mamiya Press Lens and the LomoGraflock Back. So there’s better alternatives to using the LomoGraflock Back. I’m super excited to dive into the world of instant film. So many of the instant film cameras on the market just don’t have a lot of control, so then your photos don’t turn out the greatest or the sharpest. With these designs they make it possible to shoot instant film with a lot more control, so I’m ecstatic about that. It’s not so much a project that will be fruitful and produce a specific body of work. It’s going to be fun and I’m really excited about it. But also it’s super aggravating because 3D printing is stupid and hard. But yeah, I’m really excited.

You can find Han’s work online on Instagram, Twitter, and on her Website.

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Danielle Wrobleski

Frequently buried in too many cameras, Danielle is the poster child for Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Accidentally tripping into film photography several years ago, it now consumes her life with over 40 cameras in her collection. Located in the Midwest, when she’s not messing around with cameras you can find her hiking, cuddling cats, or doing watercolor illustrations.

All stories by:Danielle Wrobleski
  • I really like theses photos Han and a really good article series Danielle! There is a lot of inspiration in how very talented photographers see the world. Best regards.

  • I finally got around to reading this and love it. The photos are wonderful. Thanks for introducing me to her.

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Danielle Wrobleski

Frequently buried in too many cameras, Danielle is the poster child for Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Accidentally tripping into film photography several years ago, it now consumes her life with over 40 cameras in her collection. Located in the Midwest, when she’s not messing around with cameras you can find her hiking, cuddling cats, or doing watercolor illustrations.

All stories by:Danielle Wrobleski