I can’t seem to scroll through Instagram without seeing at least one digital remake of a film photo taken on a disposable camera. The distinctly grainy, slightly blue tint is a constant visual on my social media feeds. These photos’ popularity would seem to indicate that they are of a superior photographic caliber. But, in reality, they are by no means high-quality photos. Often in these photos, some subjects are washed out while others appear as shadows. The photos can be blurry; teeth can be discolored; eyes appear as red beads.
However, despite these intrinsic flaws, the recent trend in using disposable cameras doesn’t seem to be going anywhere — at least not anytime soon. They invoke a sense of nostalgia, letting us romanticize moments that happened mere days prior to the film’s development. They are a romanticization of a common photo-taking practice from earlier generations.
For decades, people have publicly idealized “vintage” time periods, claiming that life was much simpler “way back when.” Disposable cameras and film photos are tangible extensions of this mindset. When we see film photos, we are reminded of those our parents showed us from their twenties: photos from college, weddings, vacations, baby showers.
Film photos — which were previously necessities to document such momentous events — are now luxuries for us to capture our favorite fleeting moments, despite their relatively hefty monetary expense to users. The Fujifilm and Kodak disposable cameras, two of the most popular types, store 27 photos. And, with each picture taken, there is a set amount of money lost (about $22 per camera and $0.50 to develop each shot). Despite the steep costs of film photography today, disposable film cameras were a cheap method of photo-taking throughout the late 20th century. Alternatives such as digital point-and-shoot cameras were substantially more expensive.
With the rise of digital cameras, during the mid-1990s, people no longer needed to assign a price to each photograph they took. With a simple SD card, we were given access to a seemingly infinite number of potential photos. For the first time in the history of photography, there was no marginal cost associated with taking one more photo. Thus, photo-taking became a completely viable opportunity for the typical middle-class family looking to take photos to document their travels and holidays.
But, others believe that the change from film to digital indicated a degradation — or entire elimination — of the artistry behind photography. With digital cameras, there is no more impulse to savor each opportunity to take a photo nor a preoccupation with saving spots on your camera for potential shots. By rapidly clicking a button, someone can take the exact same picture of a sunset at slightly different angles. Without the feeling of finiteness, there is no motive to appreciate each opportunity to take a photo.
So with the emergence of a social media fad featuring film photos, perhaps we like the limitation of film once again — the pressure to only take a limited number of photos —… or do we?
Popular photo apps such as Dispo and Huji Cam attempt to satisfy our taste for film photography by mimicking its process. The apps enable users to take pictures on their cellphones, wait one day (as though the photos are actually developing) and receive digital photos that appear to have been taken on film. Though they look quite different from authentic film photos, the apps have thousands of reviews on the Apple App Store. Many of the positive reviews relate to the “vintage” feel of the photos, while many of the negative reviews pertain to bugs within the software. Most notable is people’s photos being deleted from the applications — an issue that doesn’t arise with the physical film photos.
Nevertheless, the apps are tapping into a thankful demographic, offering a cheaper alternative to disposable cameras while providing the same aesthetic as the original medium. Disposable camera users channel their will to wait despite their accessibility to other, instant options for photo-taking.
Just a few years ago, Fujifilm Instax cameras made a revival as modern Polaroid-esque cameras. In 2016, Fuji sold more than 3.5 times as many Instax cameras as digital cameras. Evidently, there has been a trend moving toward analog photography.
However, the Instax buzz was quickly diminished following the uptake of disposable cameras. Thus, photography trends are constantly evolving, an evolution that is ever-changing in medium and preference thanks to social media. Whatever photography trends occur outside of the digital sphere — such as that of the disposable film cameras — are still shaped by the digital world, in the form of social media.
I think film and Polaroid photos derive their beauty from their physicality. People can hold these tangible photos, hang them up as decor or tuck them away as precious memories in their home’s sacred places. And, at face value, the photos’ physical component is the biggest difference between them and their digital counterparts. Yet people feel the need to digitize the physical photos and publicize them for their social media followers. In doing this, users seek to replicate the feelings of nostalgia and simplicity that we often associate with film photos and polaroids.
Some say that disposable cameras enable them to spontaneously take pictures whenever they are out or with friends. But, practically speaking, isn’t it much more spontaneous to bring out your cellphone — something that is on you at all times — rather than bringing a clunky piece of plastic, rolling the film and then taking the photo?
Some also claim that they appreciate the anticipation of waiting for a photo. As Gen Zers, we have grown up in a digital world. At the click of a button we have access to the World Wide Web, enabling us to connect with whomever, research an infinite amount of topics and use virtually any software tool we want. Sometimes it is nice to take a step back and revel in the beauty of anticipation.
With this I can’t help but lean into my cynicism and conclude that Gen Zers have taken to film photography not for wholesome purposes of “savoring the moment” or relishing in anticipation as our older relatives once did. Simply put: We are reverting to this medium simply for aesthetic purposes. It looks cool in real life and, even better, it looks cool on Instagram.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking photos just for the aesthetic. When we trivialize photography by labeling certain photos as art and others as silly social media posts, we are no better than those who say that photography in its entirety is not an art form. If a photograph can evoke any emotion from its viewer, I believe it is art. Whether that emotion is yearning for “the good old days” or appreciation for a perfectly curated Instagram feed, it is emotion nonetheless.
Going forward, I can’t help but wonder what the next photography trend will be. Perhaps teenagers in the future will take photos on old smartphone models to cultivate a similar old-timey feel. Rather than seeing film photos on Instagram, maybe I will see NFTs of iPhone 3 pictures in the metaverse. As we delve deeper into the technology of social media, we may find ourselves clinging onto the nostalgia of old technology more and more.
This also begs the question of how much is too much? Is there a point in our media where we have progressed too much to truly appreciate the photos that we publicize online? And is there also a point where we have regressed too much in search of comfort from previous technologies? For both of these questions there is no certain answer. But for now, film photographs will have to suffice as connections to our past.
Statement Columnist Kavya Uppalapati can be reached at email@example.com.