the saya machine

by Faris Khairi

I am a photobooth operator. You know, those guys at events – usually weddings, who would stand for hours next to a tall mysterious camera box, tending to lines of people eager to have their photo taken.

Typically our kind would look like geeky college boys, a look of a tech-y person that could advise you on a good smartphone deal. Working in public, we try our best to look neat – a shirt with a collar at least, tucked in, with a featureless color such as black. Guests would mistake us as waiters or hotel staff sometimes, and ask us directions to the bathroom. It’s not all too insulting, we are in the business of customer service anyway.

The job is not all too bad. We load 50kg of our camera equipment into our Myvis and Kelisas, drive up to the venue, only to unload everything again. We risk snapping our spines throughout the process, but it’s probably the workout that we need.

We set up the photoshoot spot by making it as glamorous as possible – hang glittering backdrops of gold and silver, lay out relatable props that say “BFF”, “Always Mrs. Right” and colorful afros that extroverts thrive on.

After all the computer stuff are good to go, we do a little test print. Then we clean ourselves a bit and put on the best customer-service facade you will ever see. Then like nervous little pawns, we await the hordes of faces we must interact with for the next couple of hours.

It’s simple. I don’t complain. Sometimes the work can get tough and physical. But at least we don’t spend our lives editing the photos afterwards, like our photographer comrades. The ones on the ground taking thousands of shots and running them through an editing software until their computer crashes. Your client’s taste would probably be bad, they wouldn’t recognize and accept your hard work on first submission.

Plus, this photobooth thing pays well. We’re really just milking a tiny drop of money out of corporate clients. And of course, I don’t need to talk about the wedding industry. Photobooths are so trendy nowadays. It’s worrying if you don’t have one. You don’t want your friends to think that you are opposed to services that promote terms like fun, positivity and “good vibes”. Worse, you don’t want them to think you can’t afford one.

Pay-bills and put-food-on-table aside – do I really enjoy this job? What is the appeal of it? I don’t know to be honest. I just do it. Is there a kid out there who’d dream of growing up to be the best photobooth operator in the world? I doubt it.

You see, being a photobooth operator means being in a special place of observation. Like being a security guard at an apartment watching residents go in and out. Or being a food server for a regular. It’s strange, it’s amusing, it’s privy. It’s also a psychological study. You know things about the person you’re watching that he doesn’t know himself.

We get all sorts of people. On good days we get nice folks– kind and well-behaved, civilised enough to treat you with respect. The best are the cool ones that don’t take it too seriously. They see it as a moment of whatever happens, happens. Even if they blink or the picture is spoilt, they’d still be happy with what they get. I mean that’s really how it should be.

On bad days we get people who are a bit difficult to understand. People who demand. People who are entitled. It’s not nice when feelings of inferiority starts to creep in when a rude customer talks down at you.

The moments I pack my equipment after a long day on the job, I think about what makes my circus act so popular. Disassembling the poles and cables, putting them back into the case, I gently treat them with the uttermost degree of care. This thing is the reason for everything – for the weeks of negotiating with clients, how much of a hit it was at their events, how it earns me a living.

Maybe to me, is an aspect that is more than that. This machine – that has powers exclusive only to me. An ability to connect with the subjects that I photograph, a little peek into the lives they have.

I see it when you face the camera. If you’re comfortable in your own skin. If you’re insecure about how you look. If you feel happy. If you feel sad. If you’re ‘fun’ and feel the need to crack jokes all the time. If you are shy and anxious about what people think of you. If you enjoy or regret being there.

Then there’s the couples. They’re always fun to watch. Seeing them communicate leading up to the shoot. Sometimes you can just feel that strong love glow radiating from them. And at times there are couples who are tense, and it just doesn’t feel right.

Then there’s that delight of witnessing passion and excitement in young pairs. And at times you wonder at the years an old wrinkling couple had been through as they get ready for the camera.

Sometimes I see family units. On the kind of parenting. On the bond that they have. On how loud the family is. On how cool or not cool the dad is. On how close the siblings are. On who the middle child is.

And I don’t even know these people.

What does this all mean?

That 3 seconds of limbo – between the time they strike a pose and the time the camera shutter triggers. During this pinch of time, they completely lose their surroundings. The only focus is on that reflection of themselves, to be at their very best. Are they truly capturing their real selves, or is it an attempt to be the image that they dream to be?

The camera opens up this world of emotion and vulnerability in a person. And it leaves me wondering.

I have taken photos of so many people. All these human beings passing through. Each of them still capable of surprising me.

At the end of the day, it really is just a job. 9.9 times out of 10 – customers are happy to see themselves inked on paper. It’s a joy to see them react to the photos for the first time, to know that they can keep it as a little memento of a time and place that could pass like a fleeting car.

Sometimes I forget how significant my humble line of work really is. I am permanently etching these memories forever, as a stranger. And that is quite strange, if you think about it.

To think that decades into the future, these people would stumble upon their pictures again. It will affect them. They will respond to it. They will realize how much they have changed. They will think about their sense of self, back then and at their present.

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  1. Brilliant piece! I thoroughly enjoyed the world behind the photo booth operator’s lense (ha! photography jokes). Where can I read more of Faris’ work?

    1. Hi Patricia! So happy you enjoyed reading it as much as we did. You can read more of Faris’ work on his blog 🙂

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