#vintagedigitalcamera? It’s more than just a vibe

If you’ve seen grainy, overexposed and lo-fi images surfacing on the socials, blame Gen Z. They’ve rediscovered the 90s digital camera vibe. But why?
Silhouettes of the tops of people’s heads as they watch a rock concert. In the centre, one silhouette raises their arms to the sky against a backdrop of white smoke drifting across stage lights. On the left is the dark figure of someone playing the guitar.

Written by Marie-Anne Leonard

Writer & Editor – Canon VIEW

The grainy lo-fi aesthetic of the late nineties/early noughties is a thing with Gen Z right now. All over the socials, you can find young people embracing ‘messy chic’, sharing unedited, overexposed spontaneous looking snaps of themselves and their friends. The key word here is ‘spontaneous’ – the anti-staged. The unposed. The real.

It would be a mistake to dismiss this as a ‘trend’. What we’re actually witnessing is an exhausted generation who see no sense in working to please their audience, when they could be pleasing themselves. That’s not to say that they are selfish – they just hold a different set of values to those we’ve been so used to seeing across social media over the last decade. If ten years of stylised selfies, gym poses and posts about being #blessed while watching the sunset have taught us anything, it’s that social media is hard work. Why on earth would a generation who have grown up through one crisis after another want to put themselves through even more stress? Writer and illustrator Florence Given speaking to The Times in August 2022 explains, “We’re incentivised to have a lack of boundaries to be popular, to keep sharing parts of yourself. I say that my IRL [in real life] is better than my URL – I always want to make sure my real life is ten times more enriching than anything I’m putting online.”

On top of this, these young people are not afraid of radical honesty. It’s a concept that strikes fear into the collective hearts of every generation that came before, accustomed as they are to keeping separate private and public personas. Millennials, after all, were considered the maestros of the socials, known for artfully curating every shot (remember laughing at Instagram boyfriends?). And Gen X, who grew up without smartphones, are forever reminding everyone how great it was to have all the fun in the nineties – but with barely any evidence.

However, for Gen Z it is interesting to note how honesty and privacy are equally guarded. For while they are entirely unafraid of imperfection and prioritise presenting themselves authentically to the world, they have an incredibly strong sense of what should and should not be publicly shared. The latest tradition that Gen Z have wholesale denounced as ‘cringe’, for example, is the gender reveal party. Yes, in part because their attitude to gender is largely fluid, but also because they believe that such personal moments are not for public consumption.

An overexposed photograph of the head and shoulders of a woman. She has shoulder length hair that falls across one eye and is wearing a red top. On the left is her shadow, which looks brown. On the right the wall appears a golden yellow.

So, why and how has this translated to scrappy, low megapixel candid photography? Perhaps we can look to the media and, in particular, social media for answers. A teenager born in 2005 would have been 12 when Donald Trump became President of the United States, meaning their formative teen years coincided with constant references to ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’. This was compounded by a backdrop of misinformation, political upheavals, conspiracy theories and Covid 19. Just thinking back to this period in history, it already seems slightly unreal. But then throw in a culture where photos can be edited and shared almost instantly. Where no-one is quite what or who they seem, seen through a heavy fog of Instagram filters, Facetune and Photoshop. Then Deepfakes arrived. There simply aren’t the emoji to convey the mental heavy lifting that’s been necessary for these young people. All things considered; they’re doing great.

Then there’s tech. ‘Digital Natives’ is a horribly overused term for Gen Z, but annoyingly essential when making the distinction between generational attitudes to technology. For everyone older, new tech has a wow factor. They remember a time before, leaving their old flip phone behind and switching to their first smartphone, the same from chunky old desktop PC to sleek new laptop. For a time, each new product represented a sort of paradigm shift – things would never be the same again. But when you’ve never known any different, it’s kind of hard to get excited in the same way. Young people do, however, get excited by new trends, creating content and using the tools they have at their disposal to make it original. Indeed, what we’re seeing now is the result of old fashion and new tech colliding.

Two images side-by-side of people taking photographs using old Canon digital cameras. They stand holding the cameras in front of their faces, as though taking a photograph of the viewer.

With the nineties/noughties aesthetic blowing up, Instagram accounts such as Indie SleazeNineties Anxiety and 90s_models_ are serving up beautiful images from a smartphone-free world. And celebrities aplenty (including Bella Hadid and Emily Ratajkowski) have been posting grainy candid shots and/or wearing their point and shoots as fashion accessories à la Cher Horowitz. The hashtag #vintagedigitalcamera is a genuine thing on TikTok, with over 200 million views – and it's enough to send young people off hunting through cupboards and drawers for their parents’ old school Canon PowerShot, or trawling eBay and online thrift stores for bargain digital cameras.

In a world that moves at a million miles an hour, where viral can literally happen in a matter of minutes, there is something truly gentle, joyful and healthy in the idea that young people are choosing to put space between the images they take and the places they eventually share them. The mental health challenges that Gen Z experience are well-documented, with many camps pointing the finger of blame directly at social media. Of course, mental health is complex and the troubling stats around the prevalence of anxiety, depression and distress in young people today have surely come about through a combination of factors. Social media is no doubt one, but certainly not the only one. And it seems that they are responding to the pressures of social media by trying – consciously or not – to change it from within. Making it a place where they no longer hide behind filters, organise around important issues, share truths and be real. In that respect, older generations could learn a lesson or two from young online communities.

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