The birth of The Nikonos Project was almost an accident. Jennings' proximity to the ocean -- he lives in San Clemente, California -- meant his interest in photography soon led him to the water. After buying various digital options, he decided to try out a Nikonos, and so began an extreme love affair. "To me, it's the best and really only option for 35mm in the water," he says. Jennings isn't alone in this opinion; there's a wide-held romanticism for Nikonos cameras. They were in production for four decades, allowing anyone to easily photograph underwater subjects long before you could pick up a $200 underwater point-and-shoot or a GoPro.
The fact remains that these things do exist now, though, as do underwater housings for high-end DSLRs. Jennings' answer to "Why Nikonos?" when more modern options exist is perhaps predictable -- it's an opinion you'll hear from a subset of photographers time and time again. "Whenever I talk to people about the project, I almost romanticize [film]," he says. "An image captured on film is art; it's organic; there is something there. ... Digital is great. Digital has made everyone a photographer, which is wonderful. But to me it's just not the same." Besides, although you can find housings for SLRs and DSLRs alike, Jennings says they're "such a hassle -- the Nikonos is quick and easy."
Jennings doesn't seem to acknowledge that there's anything unusual about this endeavor.
After falling for film, Jennings sold "a mountain" of digital equipment he no longer needed, bought a number of Nikonos, and asked friends on Instagram if they wanted to start shooting with them. He doesn't seem to acknowledge that there's anything unusual about this endeavor. Lots of people love film cameras, but none have had the urge to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a collection and start handing them out to people around the world.
The reaction to his idea was huge. "Fifty people wanted to shoot eight cameras," he says. After shipping out the first eight Nikonos, he immediately started scouring eBay for more. While the project was initially funded entirely by Jennings selling off unwanted digital gear, it now relies on camera donations and print sales (a select few shots from the project are available to purchase at very reasonable rates) to stay afloat.
The waiting list for cameras now stands at roughly 2,500.
There are no fees, and very few strings attached to joining the project. Photographers are simply asked to pay to send their Nikonos along to the next in line once they're done and, of course, to share their images with the world. After Jennings sends a camera out, it's unlikely to come back to him for a long time, unless there are any technical issues. This makes the project almost self-sustaining: The only costs are sending out cameras in the first place, upkeep and, when the budget allows it, buying even more Nikonos.
The Nikonos Project is altruistic at its heart, and so its rapid growth should be no surprise. It's only been a couple of years since Jennings first put the wheels in motion, and he's already amassed over 250 cameras. Over a hundred photos pour in every month, and that waiting list now stands at roughly 2,500.
As you can see from the photos peppering this article, people are doing some pretty fantastic things with these cameras. You can try to get Jennings to choose favorites, but he refuses to be specific. That shouldn't be such a surprise; his positive nature should be apparent from the project itself, and choosing one photo could be seen as negatively judging the others.
Thanks to Jennings, there are hundreds of Nikonos in photographers' hands all around the world, and there are a few ways of keeping up with the photos that they're taking. The official site has a neatly organized contributors page, a blog, the aforementioned print shop and a place where you can request a spot on the waiting list. Perhaps the best way to keep tabs on the project is through its Instagram account. Around five photos a week get posted there, and Jennings also occasionally shares news and questions -- like this image, which served as interview prep for the article you're reading.
There's an obvious irony that Instagram, a platform obsessed with nostalgia, overrun by filters and faux Polaroid overlays, plays a part in this. The project celebrates analog, but it came about and continues to grow thanks to modern technologies. As more people get into creative photography through things like Instagram, so too the pool of potential contributors to the project will grow. You can prefer analog over digital, sure, but there's a symbiosis between the two now. When was the last time you discovered something without the help of technology?
The project celebrates analog, but succeeds thanks to modern technologies.
Despite the obvious parallels with the success of Instagram, it's a struggle to define what the Nikonos Project is. It's part artistic endeavor, part charity. It's a loose real-life social network, facilitated by the internet. It's almost aimless, but has yielded fantastic results and built a strong and growing community. So what's Jennings' endgame? There isn't one. "I mean, clearly I wish that we had more cameras in the arsenal so more people could be shooting with them, but I'm not planning on getting rich off this project," he says. There are some ideas for the future, though: Jennings has plans to get "a few shows going," and wants to facilitate participants "nerding out together as Nikonos shooters" through real-world meetups. He's also working on a book ("or a few books") highlighting each participant's work.
Mostly, he's just stoked at the reaction to the project, and what it's meant for his life. "I've met some awesome people, and I'm certain there are more amazing people to meet," he says. "Everything doesn't have to have a destination in mind, right?"
[Image credits: Tom Squires (lead image); Bryan Timm (black-and-white silhouette of surfer); Josh Anderson (surfers in sunlight); Keoki Saguibo (child submerged in water); Vince Cavataio (Instagram of surfer)]