'With film, you can feel the photography': P.E.I. Photo Lab still developing film

Call it the little camera shop that could: after Alhan and Keyvan Ashenai emigrated from Kuwait and took over P.E.I. Photo Lab, they've continued to develop film — a medium they say is having a renaissance.

'We are trying to keep it as cheap as we can so people can continue using film, because we love photography'

Alhan Ashnaei processes film every Friday at P.E.I. Photo Lab in Charlottetown. (Sara Fraser/CBC)

Film photography is experiencing a small renaissance and P.E.I. Photo Lab in Charlottetown is happy to be part of it, developing and printing film both new and old.

The unassuming little store on Queen Street had already been running for more than 30 years when photographer Alhan Ashnaei purchased it in 2012. 

Because it is a surprise, it will touch your heart, you know?... With film, you can feel the photography.— Keyvan Ashenaei, P.E.I. Photo Lab 

"It is a little bit more expensive now, so there is not that much profit for the companies to do that, so they stopped doing that," said his brother, marketing manager Keyvan Ashenaei. 

Expensive indeed. P.E.I. Photo Lab charges $14.99 to develop and print a roll of 24 35-millimetre photos, but Keyvan Ashenaei estimates the work actually costs the lab about $35.

They lose money in the process, he said, but they do it out of love.

"We are trying to keep it as cheap as we can so people can continue using film, because we love photography," said Keyvan.  

'It will touch your heart'

Keyvan pointed to the popular photography course at Holland College in Charlottetown as a source of new film customers, as well as young hobbyists, some of whom buy chemicals from the lab to do developing at home.

Keyvan Ashenaei shows off his grandfather's camera which he and his brother Alhan brought from Kuwait to P.E.I. (Sara Fraser/CBC)

"It's a challenge and a good experience," said Keyvan, noting most old cameras don't have auto focus, so people have no choice but to learn how to focus manually, as well as learning how to control shutter speed, ISO and lighting. 

"Especially young people, they like surprises," Keyvan smiled. "With the digital you can see what you did, but with the film you cannot see what you did.

"Because it is a surprise, it will touch your heart, you know? … With film, you can feel the photography." 

Film Fridays

During the winter the shop develops five to 15 rolls of film per week — they do them all at once on Fridays — and the past few summers they've processed 30 to 40 rolls a week.

You can still buy film at P.E.I. Photo Lab, although companies are no longer manufacturing film cameras. (Sara Fraser/CBC)

Alhan hopes camera companies like Kodak or Fuji will take note of the renewed interest in film and bring back affordable, quality film cameras and darkroom chemicals.

"A lot of the young generation are asking for film," he said.

The brothers are happy to help people just learning about film cameras who are "really excited" but don't know where to find batteries and film and how to load the film.

"They find the camera through eBay or found it in yard sales. Sometimes they don't know if it's working or not!" said Keyvan. 

Vintage technology

When the brothers bought the shop, they inherited the vintage machine that develops the film negatives.

Keeping P.E.I. Photo Lab's negative developing machine operating is a challenge since it is decades old and parts are no longer available. (Sara Fraser/CBC)

"We try to take care of that as our baby!" laughs Keyvan. The brothers have made an offer to its manufacturer to purchase any similar machines so they can have a supply of spare parts, which are almost impossible to find.  

Another antique machine that printed photos from negatives broke last year, and the brothers were unable to fix or replace it. Luckily, they've worked out another scanning process. 

Immigrants to P.E.I.

The brothers' love of photography is in their blood — their grandfather and father before them were photographers, too. 

Some of the vintage film cameras the Ashenaei brothers have used, now on display at P.E.I. Photo Lab. (Sara Fraser/CBC)

Their father moved from Iran to Kuwait in the 1950s and started a photography business, teaching his boys about the business. Together Alhan and Keyvan ran a large photography studio, taking publicity photos of celebrities, selling it in 2008 to emigrate to Canada under the PNP program. 

"Even though we were born and raised it Kuwait, it wasn't our country," said Keyvan — even though they owned a successful business, the government of Kuwait denied them citizenship. Their children were denied access to post-secondary education and would be blocked from most employment.

'Welcome home'

"It wasn't safe for us and even our children," he said, noting as a follower of the persecuted minority Bahá'i religion, the family could not return to Iran, where Bahá'i are executed

"We don't have a country," Keyvan said. "So, we emigrated to Canada."

"They told us from the first day in the airport, welcome home. You felt you have a country, you have a home," said Keyvan, choking up slightly. 

Besides developing film, P.E.I. Photo Lab does photo restoration and enlarging, photography services like portraits and passport photos, and sells digital camera gear and frames. They'd also be happy to develop film that is mailed to them, the brothers said. 

About the Author

Sara Fraser

Web Journalist

Sara is a P.E.I. native who graduated from the University of King's College in Halifax. N.S., with a Bachelor of Journalism (Honours) degree. She's worked with CBC Radio and Television since 1988, moving to the CBC P.E.I. web team in 2015, focusing on weekend features. email