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March 17, 2021

PONTIN | A Devotion to Disposability

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If you’ve been on social media at all in the past year — and I’d be bound to take an outlandish guess that you probably have — you might be curious about the preponderance of disposable photos cropping up in your feed. It seems a bit archaic, does it not? After all, there’s a reason why the digital camera is so well-loved: who would want to pay for a lower-quality version of a technology many of us already have in our pockets, all while having to wait several weeks to see the end results? 

The answer: me, and a multitude of other adolescents. I succumbed to the powerful current of the mainstream this past fall after finding myself intrigued by the grainy, strangely-lit photos I was seeing smeared across every social media platform. Something about the process seemed delightfully out of place, a superfluous return to a technology we have long since outgrown. 

Historians trace the dawn of roll film back to George Eastman during the late nineteenth century, a more modern iteration in the long progression of daguerreotypes and wet-plate pictures. Firms like Kodak helped to make the technology widely available to consumers with user-friendly options like the Brownie, debuting in 1900, which required little more than the press of a button.

It was not until the late 1980s, however, that disposable cameras became all the rage, offering a relatively cheap way to enjoy photography without the commitment of purchasing a more sophisticated model. Even as digital cameras joined the scene in the 1990s, disposable options held their ground as a staple of accessibility and ease. Why is it, then, that we are so fascinated by this technology, even when a smartphone is clearly more handy?

On a superficial level, the whole ordeal appears nonsensical. Here is Generation Z, composed of “innovators” and “digital natives” both praised and scorned for our adroitness and our attachment to technology. We have built our reputation upon a bedrock of relentless work to propel the world forward, whether through campaigns centering social justice, activism aimed at slowing climate change or technological advancements to address the needs of those too often forgotten. The trend towards disposables, however, represents a motion in retrograde — a reversion back to an era with which we are largely unfamiliar. 

Do we want so desperately to be part of a time we’ll never have the chance to experience, an epoch liberated from many of the pressures (and conveniences) that technology — inescapable mass media in particular — has unapologetically spawned? Perhaps, on the rare occasion — yet we take our old-fashioned photos with our little boxes of plastic and then turn around, immediately and unfailingly, to post them on Instagram. If not a fascination with the world as it once was, then what is it that drives our admiration for disposables?

The solution may lie in something equally as internal yet infinitely more revolutionary: delayed gratification. Our environment is one designed to tempt us and lure out the most crude and inescapable impulses of instant satisfaction. These contests are everywhere, verbalized in the bold lettering of “same-day shipping” and the variegated packaging of instant microwave meals. Our world glorifies what can be done in the right here, right now. 

The decision to select a more time-consuming alternative to something that has become so incredibly central to the way we live our lives — the boundless urge to meticulously document everything, from the mundane to the magnificent — is radical and subversive. It is a forceful denial of a culture that hails efficiency above all else, a conscious choice to make two entirely avoidable trips to the local drugstore instead of opening an app. In this way, taking photos on film is indulgent and expressive. It is a choice to let memories marinate in our minds, at least for a little while, on the basis of how we felt them and experienced them. In doing so we escape any internal judgements about the way we looked, any frustrations about not having a perfectly postable photo, any disruptions that come from the need to crop, saturate and adjust. 

While the renaissance of film might seem superficially counterintuitive, it keys us into a widespread craving for a more meaningful way to curate our reminiscences. We want photos to be a tool to remember the past instead of a lens through which we live and manipulate our present. Film allows us to achieve this critical separation, fracturing the timeline between the moment itself and the way the moment congeals in our minds later on. Go ahead and call it “basic” or “trendy” — but in my book, Gen Z might just be onto something. If we’re going to revive something from the 1990s, I’d much rather see disposable cameras than low-rise jeans. 

Megan Pontin is a sophomore in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. She can be reached at mpontin@cornellsun.com. Rewind runs alternate Wednesdays.