A shock of bright, cold sky against sun-streaked buildings. A frothy latte in the powdery snow. Stacks of instant noodles in the Chinese supermarket. A half-eaten pack of avocado maki beside a pot of pickled ginger.
A ‘photo dump’ is an Instagram carousel post which features multiple, unrelated pictures. Over the past year, you’ve probably noticed more and more of them on your feed. You might even have posted a few yourself.
Low-effort and pell-mell (hence the name 'dump'), Olivia Yallop, creative director at youth-focused creative studio The Digital Fairy, describes photo dumps as "the digital equivalent of doodles on napkins or marginalia on medieval manuscripts". "They’re an extension of a trend towards shitposting, finstagrams and anti-aesthetic uploads," she explains. "They also feel like early Facebook albums: uploading a plethora of uncurated images into an album straight from your camera."
Nayna, a YouTube content creator who also hosts her own podcast, says that she originally started posting dumps just to post content without it needing to match the rest of her feed, but she’s since continued to do it for fun. "In lockdown I've learned to appreciate the small things, like the way the light hits my bedroom window or some cool street art," she says. "It's nice to share those things."
Yallop links the trend — which rose in popularity in tandem with the spread of the pandemic last year — to lockdown. "Photo dump resurgence may be partly a tactical reaction to current circumstances: there aren’t any 'big moments' to post on Instagram anymore, coupled with an 'anything goes in a pandemic' spirit," she explains.
She’s right: in The Before Times we might have gone to one or two social events a week, from parties to dinners to pubs, and taken a smattering of photos at each. Nowadays, however, our camera rolls are barren. The random meme screenshots, photos of wispy clouds and no-makeup selfies which are usually buried by snaps of your friends sipping cocktails are the only things left in your camera roll.
If I open my own camera roll and scroll back to February 2020, there are videos of my best friend dancing to Gigi FM in a heaving, sweaty crowd, followed by laughably hideous selfies of us in our pyjamas, hungover in bed the next day. But if I scroll forward to February 2021, so far there’s a single photo I took of a halloumi bagel, a screenshot of a pair of earrings I want and a selfie using a Snapchat lens which makes it look like I’m wearing a black bucket hat and Kurt Cobain-style glasses. And that’s it.
In lockdown I've learned to appreciate the small things, like the way the light hits my bedroom window or some cool street art. It's nice to share those things.
It’s true that art imitates life: my photos are now as fragmented and discordant as my social calendar. Life has no flow anymore. As Yallop puts it: "There’s a link between photo dumps and a broader lack of social coherency; they represent the fragmentation of digital self-documentation from unified, premeditated social moments into a series of disconnected and spontaneous shards."
But while it is depressing to think of all the abandoned false lashes festering in makeup bags across the country, photo dumps themselves are far from depressing. This is a trend which celebrates the beauty in mundanity and despite their 'rawness', many of them are still aesthetically pleasing.
Like Nayna, 22-year-old Carina is also a fan of photo dumps. "I am a big believer in the beauty of the domestic and mundane," she says. "Being at home more has reinforced that belief: I now have time to observe the way the light catches my room at 5pm or how dark and mysterious my morning coffee looks and capture it on camera."
Carina makes the point that the slower pace of life in lockdown has allowed her to notice these little details she might have otherwise missed. "Pre-lockdown life was so fast paced, and I’d rarely think about taking a photo unless I was at a social event. At parties I’d often take photo bursts so my camera roll became littered with near-identical shots," she explains. "Now I pay close attention to detail. It’s nice to have photos from your everyday life to look back on and remember what you were up to."
The past year has also left our relationships with celebrities reeling: from that cringe cover of "Imagine" to influencers brazenly jetting off to Dubai, celebs haven’t managed to do much right during the pandemic. So could it be that the photo dumps are the natural result of this wider rejection of celebrity culture? Does the trend herald a significant move towards us using social media more 'authentically' and away from using it as a polished highlights reel, as many famous people do? Carina thinks so, and hopes the trend sticks around. "Photo dumps bring Instagram back to its original roots as an online scrapbook," she says. "Pre-lockdown social media was saturated with influencer culture and I am really enjoying the move towards more ‘authentic' feeds."
Although photo dumps are a far cry from the usual filtered, smoothed and brightened pictures you’ll find on Instagram, they still only offer us a carefully curated glimpse into other people's lives. Are they really all that authentic? Nayna says: "I still think everyone — including me — chooses nicer pictures even for photo dumps." Yallop also makes the point that "everything is curated online". "Even the appearance of artlessness is an effect in and of itself — look at the way that influencers post ‘Instagram vs reality’ carousels," she says.
But does it matter if photo dumps aren’t as totally effortless and slapdash as they seem? In short, no. "The debate about Instagram vs reality and the fetishisation of 'authenticity' has been going on for a while and I don’t think it’s a conversation with much value," Yallop says. Authentic or not, photo dumps are more about sharing isolated moments of beauty — the setting sun casting long shadows on a wall; steam rising from a black coffee; morning frost sparkling on the grass — rather than sharing ‘real’ ugliness. We know, now more than ever, that suffering and ugliness abound in the real world. We don’t need more of it on social media.
As photo dumps are so uniquely attuned to the current zeitgeist, it’s hard to predict whether they’ll stay popular in the future. Yallop believes that "the philosophy of the photo dump is here to stay, if not the specific platform format or context." Even if the trend itself doesn’t stick around, hopefully we can at least continue to seek out beautiful moments in bleak times.
And as photo dumps prove, there are plenty of beautiful moments if you look close enough.