giving

My 2018 EMULSIVE Secret Santa Experience by Michael Jin

© 2019 Michael Jin. Pentax Super Takumar 55mm f/2 with Sony A7RIII

For those that don’t know, the EMULSIVE Secret Santa is an annual event within the film photography community organized by EM of emulsive.org. The idea is that a bunch of participants all around the world sign up and get paired with a partner to send a gift to so that we can all open our gifts together on Christmas day. Like many of these types of events, the person that you’re sending to is usually not the person who is gifting to you (except in a few rare scenarios) so it’s all a big surprise in the end. When you sign up, you can either choose to ensure that you’re shipping domestically or say that you’re open to ship internationally. Despite the fact that the EMULSIVE Secret Santa is pretty much talked about on every film photography podcast that I listen to, 2018 was the first year that I decided to actually participate.

The thing is that I’m not really a “holiday” type of person. I don’t find any particular joy in the whole tradition of gift exchange and I pretty much want to claw my ears out whenever I start to hear Christmas music all day everywhere I go. I’ve never participated in a Secret Santa simply because I’m a grumpy grinch. I’ve always been of the opinion that we’re all better off just keeping our own money in our pockets and buying the things that we actually want rather than getting sweaters or socks that we’ll never wear and pretending to be happy about it. I guess I’m just not really sentimental in that regard. This year was a bit different, though. I’ve been making an active effort to try to open myself up and be a more social person in general. I figured that the EMULSIVE Secret Santa would be a good way to connect (even if just in a limited fashion) with another person. So I went on to Elfster, which was the site that the event was using to organize, registered as a participant, and waited to be paired.

It took a while, but I finally got my pairing and it happened to be someone in Georgia. Now while the minimum gift value is $20 and all registrants get to create a wish list, we are encouraged to find out a little bit about the person receiving the gift via an anonymous Q&A mechanism built into the Elfster platform. While some people simply ignore this and send whatever rolls of film or camera that they have pre-determined regardless of which recipient they get paired with, EM emphasizes that the idea is to strengthen the community and encourages us to tailor our gifts by using these Q&A exchanges. Figuring that since I’ve gone out of my way to participate, I decide to flow with the spirit of the event and proceed to send a bunch of anonymous questions to my recipient. Then I hear nothing back.

Now I’m left with a choice. Do I just send whatever since my recipient is not responding, or do I wait it out a bit longer to see if he eventually responds? The days keep passing and the Christmas Day deadline looms ever nearer as I keep logging into Elfster to see if there has been any update. I’m seeing all of these notifications in the activity board where people are thanking their Santas for their gifts—some of them cheat by opening the gift early—and there I am feeling like a dipshit for not having sent my gift out yet. Finally, just as I’m about to break, I get a response from my recipient who says that he simply hadn’t been checking his Elfster account. We have a brief back and forth and I get an idea for some film stocks that I think he’d like. I put the order into B&H and I end up shipping it via UPS 3-Day to ensure that it arrives on time since it was all so last minute. Thankfully, I get confirmation through Elfster that my gift was received and I breathe a sigh of relief. Then it hits me. Nobody ever sent me any questions to answer.

So I know I’ve done my part, but now I’m wondering what going on with the other end of this exchange as it pertains to me. Is my Santa one of the people who just have something that they already have in mind to send? Is something on the way? It doesn’t seem like it since Elfster does have a button to press once you send your package to let your recipient to know that something has been shipped (and a separate button for the recipient to press to confirm receipt). I check and there’s nothing to indicate that anything has been shipped and my Santa has been completely silent. My next thought immediately goes to, “Is my Santa one of those dead beats that I hear about who just enters to receive something and never sends anything out on their end?” A system like this is ripe for abuse, after all. It would seem a pretty dick move, but as Christmas gets closer and closer, it looks increasingly common.

Finally I check my Elfster account one day and there’s a message for me.

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OK. I can understand that shit happens and I know how stressful finals can be. What’s more important? Personal circumstances or a gift exchange? Of course I tell him to take care of whatever he needs to take care of. Clearly, I’m going to be getting SOMETHING even if it’s not on time. All he has to do is drop it in the mail at some point. Right?

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RADIO SILENCE…

This is a screenshot that I took today as I write this post on January 19, 2019. It’s been nearly a month since Christmas. There’s been no further communication, no confirmation of a package sent, and no package received. Because of this, I’m going to go ahead and put my grumpy hat back on. You see, even if it was part of an exchange, this would have literally been the only gift that I received this past Christmas. I know that I am not the only person to experience this as it is a known problem and it seems like EM and his assistants are working in the background on their contingency for these scenarios, but frankly speaking, they shouldn’t have to have a contingency because people should be decent enough to either abide by their word or withdraw if circumstances prevent them from fulfilling their end of the agreement.

Some people have posted about how their joy has simply been knowing that the person that they gifted to enjoyed their present and I certainly feel the joy that my own gift was well received by the person to whom I was assigned. I suppose I feel rather ambivalent in that I also feel betrayed and angry at myself for allowing to feel this way because I allowed myself to have enough faith in a stranger whom I knew nothing about to get my hopes up. I think I would have almost preferred complete radio silence altogether than that single message that made hope briefly blip on my otherwise jaded and cynical radar.

Whatever the final resolution to this will be, I have already decided that I am not going to participate in this event again. I commend EM for doing his utmost to rally the film photography community around this event and doing his best to organize it—even going so far as to have contingency plans in place for situations like mine. That having been said, my experience will be that in an event that was specifically designed to strengthen the bonds in this community, someone entered to take advantage of it and I simply don’t want to lose what little faith in people that I have left.

Good luck, EM. Thanks for trying.

© 2016 Michael Jin. NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4D with Nikon D810.