When he's not surfing around Orange County, California, 33-year-old Brandon Jennings is likely in his garage, spending hours tinkering with old Nikonos underwater cameras. As a passion project, he finds and repairs the discontinued 35mm waterproof setups, ships them to people all over the world, and updates his blog (Nikonosproject.com) with the photos that he gets back from participants. The resulting images are as unique as the surfers who shoot them, and with hundreds of cameras out on loan, the project has taken on a life of its own.
What led to the inception of the Nikonos Project?
When I moved to Orange County, I took a super- stressful office job and decided to learn how to shoot digital cameras at Lowers and Salt Creek as a release. I started getting interested in film and came across the Nikonos. I wanted to prove to myself that I could take photos with a film camera as well as I did with a digital. Then I thought it would be cool to send these waterproof cameras to other people to see what they could do, and then have them send it to another person, and so on. I sold the rest of my digital gear, bought 12 more Nikonos cameras, and posted something on Instagram basically saying, "OK, I have these cameras. Who wants to use them?" It just blew up from there.
So how many cameras do you have loaned out right now?
I have about 280 out in the world and almost 4,000 people on the waitlist. Shipping is so expensive, and initially I paid for it. Now I just tell people when they're done using the equipment, they have to pay to ship it to the next person. This way it's more self-sustaining. I'm actually trying to get all the cameras back to do an overhaul and replace the parts that tend to fail and flood, but nobody wants to give them up.
Do you send cameras only to surf photographers?
Most of the people interested consider themselves photographers on some level, but occasionally I'll get someone who's like, "I don't know anything about these cameras, but I heard about the project and I'm going to Hawaii; could I use a camera?" To see people's reasons for why they want to participate is really cool.
Do you get a lot of feedback from the people who use the cameras?
I ship all the cameras with a notebook and people are supposed to write who they are, where they're from, and tell us their story and what they did with the camera. So the concept was that as the camera gets passed from person to person, that notebook will slowly grow with stories about where that camera has been and who shot with it, and it would become a really cool compilation. Not everyone fills out the notebook, but I'm going to start pushing for it a little more because I think it's interesting to kind of document the camera's journey.
Do you see this becoming a full-time gig?
I get quite a few donations and I get a lot of cameras donated from older guys and divers. I sell a few photographs and I have a lot of supporters, but honestly I hope it never becomes something I rely on for money. That's why people like it: because it's just there to be enjoyed.