The Philosophy of a Disposable Camera

“The nostalgia was the nicest part of the camera, and it didn’t even come in the box. The nostalgia was the intangible value I’d attached to this purchase, and it was materially worthless.”

Max Vos

Today, I bought a disposable camera. This was the first time I’d held one in my hands since year six camp. Now, nine years later, I’ve decided to make a decision which will undoubtedly raise questions about my sense of judgement. It was strange, to say the least. To say the most, as soon as I walked out of the store, the metaphorical obligation I now had to this somehow-still-in-production relic of my childhood was filling me from head to toe with excitement. I hope to do eleven-year-old-me proud.

This camera was expensive, at least for what I was getting; “27 Photos + 12 Free/Gratuites/Gratis”. Lucky me. At $24 for the whole thing that was 61c per photograph (bonus included), 51c more expensive than printing at Officeworks. So, I could’ve just taken photos on my phone and decided to develop the 39 most recent and saved myself $19.89 all up. I could’ve. To be honest, the photos would have been better quality and I could edit and crop them to photographic perfection: adjust lighting, saturation, general composition, or contrast. I could have filtered it: Gingham, Moon, Lark, Reyes, Juno; added the jovial Snapchat dog face. I could have added anything I wanted.

You know what that extra $19.89 bought me? Nostalgia. The nostalgia was the nicest part of the camera, and it didn’t even come in the box. The nostalgia was the intangible value I’d attached to this purchase, and it was materially worthless.

I opened the packaging; I was slapped with the aroma of cheap plastic. Now I held the camera in my hands.

And left my finger in front of the lens.

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Eventually, after spending a few days with the disposable camera in the side-pocket of my bag, I realised just how eager I’d been to capture what I was seeing. At first I would capture some meaningful things: a moment in time I will never get back, and things I wanted physical reminders of. These were personal – images of myself in my favourite clothes, and attached to those were the premonitions of who I want to be, and of the person I can be now.

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There was a significant difference between taking photos with this old camera and taking photos with the one embedded in my phone. Just about everybody these days has a phone like this, which means that the flurry of images is limitless. Unfortunately, instead of using these images as an artistic outlet, most people use their phones to take photos of notes and posters and reminders. Sometimes we use them to take selfies to remind ourselves that we make our own reality, and whether or not that’s a good thing is still under debate, while we’re just happy to feel like we look good.

Using a disposable camera meant something different entirely. Every time I turned the lens to myself, I risked wasting one of the few precious blank rectangles of film, out of my “27 + 12 Gratis”, on a picture of the top left quarter of my face and a confused bystander.

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I spent one night at Fringe World and actualised my enthusiasm into a full film cartridge.

I took photos of the globes, at a rare moment, when they weren’t sheltering tourists taking pictures on their phones.

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I took photos of the string lights, and they turned out dark.

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I took photos of the empty Ferris wheel, its steady rotation reduced to a moment of bleached stillness.

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And I took photos of scenery that didn’t work out– blurred, dark, scattered with colours that weren’t there, or blotched with ambient light that smudged the scenery in the distance.

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That night the temporary nature of the festival mirrored the camera’s. Every time I looked through the lens I was reminded that I would only be shooting with this camera for a little while, and there was only a little while in which the things I was shooting would be there. The entire map of theatres and bench-filled parks was disposable.

With a camera like this you cannot take photos as soon as the image composes its mise en scène. The world of a disposable camera is a test of willpower and patience. You must first wind the film forward, so your target can’t be moving too quickly. You hold the camera up, but no filters are applied so you have to work to make your picture look interesting. You must reflect on the significance and worth of every image you take. You must decide in a moment: will this photo be worth it? Will this image turn out well? Is this picture too dark? Is this picture going to come out the way I expect it to? You have to question the worth of what you’re trying to capture in comparison with what you could save that film for. Do you expect there to be something better worth waiting for? You must think about every image – there are no quick snaps and instant photos that you can delete at a press of a button. You have to understand what every photo means, and have an intention for it; these photos are permanent and finite in number.

The entire process of using a disposable camera involves patience and contemplation. I am now impatiently waiting for the first batch of photos to return from processing in Sydney. As I am an amateur in the world of film photography, I decided to take the photos to Big W, where a cashier told me “one to two weeks”. I didn’t even get them all back.

Today’s technology is brilliant. We can capture the atomic, and the stellar. We can capture a millisecond, or we can capture hours. We can capture what the eye cannot see, and we can capture emotion and meaning better than ever before.

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For me, there is still beauty in limitation, especially when applying the limitations of an age barely passed to its successor. There is beauty in not knowing if that photo turned out the way you wanted it to. There is beauty in the uncertainty of your idea’s communication, and an appreciation for the art produced with the same limited technology. It is the same as recognising the talent behind non-electronic music – people were still able to make something great without filters or auto-tune. The beauty in disposable cameras lies in the ability to bring together a set of photos that may or may not turn out how you expect, and to let the photos take form, often free from your intention. You may, upon review, see lens flares where there were none before. Lights may be more colourful against a black background, or maybe a blur was captured where you wanted to capture something still. There is beauty in capturing life as it truly seems to be, without being able to do a damn thing about it.

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All photographs taken by the author.

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