Sometimes the internet goes over our heads. Luckily, we have a college student on staff to help us navigate those times. This is the disposable-camera renaissance, youthsplained.
If you spend more than a few minutes on TikTok, along with all those Renegade dances and soy sauce ball-dipping, you have probably encountered another trend on the video-sharing app, one that involves a device from a past generation — disposable cameras.
There’s no real name for this trend, but the related TikToks share a similar format: Show your plasticky Kodak/Fujifilm camera, zoom in, and then transition to a shot of your film prints that feature you and your very large group of friends having the time of your lives. The videos are usually set to with Colony House’s “You Know It,” and other upbeat songs that sound like they would be played over a montage in a coming-of-age movie.
Search the hashtag “disposable camera” on TikTok and you’ll find hundreds of videos with a combined 14.4 million views, while the comment sections are typically filled with info on where to get film developed, tips on how to avoid dark photos and others wishing they had friends to take these kinds of photos with.
Disposables aren’t a particularly new phenomenon, nor is the use of film cameras as nostalgia. You may remember the polaroid trend from a few years back, where young people were using multi-colored Fujifilm Instax Instant Film Cameras you could get at Urban Outfitters. But the somewhat ironic phenomenon of disposable cameras invading internet platforms (and Vanity Fair after-parties), is noteworthy.
And it’s not just on TikTok. You can find thousands of Instagram accounts dedicated solely to people’s disposable photos. Celebrities like Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid have had these types of accounts since 2019 — but the trend seemed to really pick up among teens once ultra-popular YouTuber David Dobrik made using disposables pretty much a part of his brand. His Instagram page, appropriately called “davidsdisposables,” has over 3 million followers and documents the everyday activities of the “Vlog Squad,” with some appearances by people like Leonardo DiCaprio, Beyoncé and Chris Hemsworth.
Like any smart internet personality would, Dobrik capitalized on his influence and created an app named after his popular Instagram account, which mimics a disposable camera. David’s Disposable surpassed one million downloads in just the first three weeks.
There’s a slew of retro camera apps, like “Huji Cam” and “VHS Cam,” in the App Store that apply notable film camera qualities — vintage filters and timestamps — to regular iPhone pictures. But Dobrik’s app includes a few particularly odd features for a phone application. For one, the interface accurately recreates the experience of using an actual disposable camera, in that the tiny viewfinder is the only way you have of seeing what exactly you’re photographing. But even more notably, it makes you wait until 9 AM the following day to view your photos, as though they needed that time to develop.
Obviously this sounds insane. When a friend introduced me to the app on New Year’s Eve, it didn’t make any sense. Why the hell would I wait a day when I could instantly take the photo on my already built-in phone camera and just slap a vintage filter on it? But as the night progressed and drinks continued to flow, we forgot about the many drunken pictures that were taken, which would result in a fun surprise to distract us from our hangovers in the morning. Which is precisely why young people are spending a little extra money on film and forgoing instant photo gratification, so they can relive the memories later.
19-year-old Andrew Angel has a series of popular disposable camera TikTok videos documenting his and his friends’ experiences in college. And though he’s talking not about the app but about actual film cameras, the sentiment is the same. “When you get the photos [back] all the wait and anticipation makes it’s so exciting,” he says. “It’s like a little surprise, almost like opening a present, but for photos.”
Angel started using disposable cameras last summer after he went through some of his mother’s old photo bins. “I realized they captured such candid, raw moments that I wanted in my photos.”
Generation Z (13- to 21-year-olds) came of age when the iPhone had already pretty much become a necessity. Unlike older generations who used film cameras because there was literally no alternative, most of Gen Z has had access to instant photography their entire adolescent lives. The selfie limit does not exist. If you don’t like the way the photo turned out, you can edit it, delete it or take as many pics as you have to to get that perfect shot — which can lose its value.
Angel says he thinks photos are more special and meaningful when taken on disposable, as opposed to an iPhone, because of the effort that goes into the process, and their ability to capture “rawer” moments. “You can take an iPhone photo hundreds of times,” he says, “but a disposable is one and done, so no complaints!”
I’ve had similar experiences during my own disposable camera endeavors throughout the years. Trying to get my friends and fellow Gen-Zers to take a photo with a regular iPhone camera can be an exhausting experience, causing my intended subjects to roll their eyes. But when the disposable camera, or even Dobrik’s app, is broken out, the smiles get noticeably bigger. This could be attributed simply to its novelty, or because there’s no opportunity to spend the rest of the night obsessing over how you look, which in the end produces more feel-good photos you not only want to share with your friends, but with the internet.
When I spoke to a few users whose disposable TikToks have gone viral about why they think so many people engage with these videos, they all said the same thing: inspiration.
“I think people enjoy these videos because they want to do it themselves, so they ‘like’ the video to remind them to buy a disposable camera,” said Angel.
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