As a kid, I remember spending many evenings with my grandparents on the couch, flipping through thick, laminated albums of photos from their teenage years. They would immerse me in their stories of Pittsburgh, PA in the mid-twentieth century, notes in the margins of the plastic liners reminding them of the context of the shots: ”Beach Trip 1963,” “Disney ‘79,” “Kelly’s 1st Birthday.” I would listen on eagerly, their words giving color to my imagination of the moments before and after the shot.
Now, there’s no need to imagine. For our generation, teen years aren’t frozen in time like those grainy prints. (Sorry, Grandma.) Our generation is heavily documented, immortalized in TikToks, Boomerangs, Snapchat Memories, and, most notably, in video.
For Gen Z, photo is where it all began.
In the early 2010s, photo was the medium of choice for Gen Zers hoping to share and archive their memories. Instagram and Facebook took over the traffic once on platforms like MySpace, and users eagerly shared their snapshots to the platforms. The ability to share photos instantly, online, and to a large following was new and exciting; understandably, teens rose to the occasion.
Video slowly made its rise with the Youtube renaissance.
Slowly but surely, though, video took on the role which photo had played. Youtube became more mainstream in 2009, and ushered in a new era of online content. Later in the 2010s this shift continued, as apps like Vine then TikTok made video even more accessible; the short-form style made the workload for creating internet video less daunting, causing even everyday people without a particular proclivity for production to get in on the trend. Beyond this, apps like Snapchat made video an integral part of our communication with one another, swapping out pictures with texts for the exchange of short videos 1-1 and on stories.
Julia Terpak, Account Director at JUV, describes the migration as a product of how easy it became to create video content as smartphone technology evolved: “In the way that photo took over much of what painting and drawing used to be used for, video is now doing the same with photo. Innovation over the past decade has made it as simple to take a high-quality video as it is to take a high-quality photo.”
Even our favorite apps like Instagram started to veer away from photo.
For a while, though, Instagram was a vestige of the photo-driven world we knew before. Although the app supported sharing videos, it was uncommon. In 2015, though, the app launched Boomerang, a service for creating short, gif-like videos. In 2016, Instagram rolled out their Stories feature, where users could make out-of-feed, temporary posts. Boomerangs and Stories were a match made in heaven, and all of a sudden sharing short clips on Stories became as mainstream as posting photos.
However, when TikTok became even more popular, Instagram decided to get in on the fun, launching their copycat, Reels, in August of 2020. This feature redefined the landscape of video on Instagram, making it all the more common as a means of communication. Now, in recent statements, Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri announced that Instagram is “…no longer a photo-sharing app.”
Gen Alpha is even more attuned to video than Gen Z.
Things are looking even more video-oriented for Gen Alpha, the youngest after Z. Ed Victori, COO at JUV, reflects on his young toddler: “Toddlers today don’t like scrolling through images, they like watching videos and interacting with them. For me, photos capture a moment, but don’t capture an energy or feeling or little voice — maybe that’s why I have 2,953 videos on my phone since 2018 when my daughter was born, and this is surely the format that’ll continue to shape/interest her.”
Photo still evokes a sense of nostalgia in Gen Z.
So, is photo dead? With Instagram officially announcing a video focus, the sentiment that the medium has fallen is certainly present. That being said, photo may still hold a place in Gen Zs hearts – with a vintage twist.
Although the more traditional days of sharing photo may be over, Gen Z has found a new way to express their love, through mechanisms like disposable cameras and Polaroids. Sharing montages of film and disposable photography (perhaps ironically) has become popular on video platforms like TikTok. Creators share their prints to a coming-of-age style soundtrack (see: Tongue Tied by GroupLove), often with a catchphrase urging to romanticize one’s life.
This vintage affinity isn’t limited to actually using disposable cameras, either. Editing apps like Huji Cam and VHS Cam have also become popular, which give smartphone photos the same vintage aesthetic as the real deal.
What makes film photography so attractive to Gen Z?
Although it’s hard to attribute this trend to a singular origin, there are certain theories that make sense. For one thing, it’s no secret that the present state of the world and the future are subjects that would make anyone’s stomach turn, especially younger generations. Vintage photos harken back to a simpler time and a simpler reality, a time before the 24-hour news cycle dominated our psyches with climate anxiety and bad news.
It’s also possible that the motivation for photo has shifted – less “online” forms of photo such as film and disposable cameras allow photos to be something one keeps for oneself, not something expected to be shared, relieving pressure.
Whatever the case, while it is true that photo has been de-emphasized as a medium, it still clearly holds a place in Gen Zs hearts. And while we’ll continue to share our lives online in video, maybe we’ll also be curating photo albums to show off to our grandchildren with Tongue Tied playing in the background.
JUV Consulting is a Gen Z collective that works with companies to create purpose-driven and authentic marketing campaigns that engage young audiences. Contact us at email@example.com if you would like to learn how to reach Gen Z.
Claire Fennell is a Senior Partner at JUV. She can most often be found reading in Central Park, listening to Elton John, or spending way too much money on iced oat lattes. Follow her on Instagram @clairemfennell!