The Image Landfill
Rise of the Photo-Dump and the Aesthetics of Resistance
Karina Curry

In April of last year Bella Hadid posted a series of photographs to Instagram sans caption. The first picture to be featured was a zoomed-in shot of the sun hitting a vase of poppies and half full wine glasses, the window in the background revealing a horse grazing on the lawn outside. When swiping left, the images became immediately disparate from the first. The pictures that followed included shots of loose flower cuttings, homemade chocolate chip cookies, a close-up of some ambiguous psychedelic pattern, a mirror selfie of Bella adorned in her horse-back riding attire, a bouquet of flowers, a goose, more flowers (this time accompanied by some crystals), the batter to what I assume would become the chocolate chip cookies, and–you guessed it–more flowers.

The posting of unrelated photos, without captions and without context, was once a sanctimonious practice, gate-kept by the bizarre stoner and introverted e-girl. Self-entitled “photo-dumps'' got their start in the alt-scene. It was leftsist and weird to post ugly, random pictures all together in a singular post. Posting such posts went against the grain of forced selfies, “fit pics,” and curated “food porn.” These posts–say, a zoomed in shot of a beer next to a trash can paired with a zoomed in photo of some hands holding a carabiner during golden hour–these were semblances of real life. These were the mundane, the scrappy, the dirty. The aesthetics of the blurry and zoomed-in resisted the high-resolution images of our knowledge economy. When combined, they alluded to life with cinematic-quality, hinting at reality, playing with temporality, and confusing the viewer with emphatic ambiguity.

Photo-dumps have grown popular in recent years, with an explosion of popularity arriving with the Covid-19 pandemic. The random, disparate images found in a photo-dump make sense during a time in which late-stage capitalism’s state of anomie and repression has coalesced, entering into our homes, unannounced through Zoom and Slack. When life has been reduced to the bare minimum, when we have become a culture predicated on productive survival, when they promise us a future that we know will never come, the ghosts of a different life come back to haunt us. The pinnacle of posting pre-pandemic–eating out, partying, travelling, gathering together–is now politically incorrect: those things are an embarrassing display of privilege of ignorance! Post instead your mundane life: your hobbies, your cooking, your walk around the neighborhood.

Bella Hadid’s snapshots of “mundane” and “everyday” life are, of course, negated by her celebrity status and the immeasurable beauty of her “quarantine home” (which seems to be somewhere in the countryside, lol). We know most people’s quarantine did not include horseback riding and baking cookies, but nonetheless, her post recalls photo-montage techniques, ultimately cultivating a specific narrative and affect of her pandemic experience. Like memory, the creation of random, heterogeneous groups of images offer up a space for associative interpretation. What is the zoomed-in image of some nondescript art doing alongside Bella's pristine life? Why is your friend posting their sliced up apple alongside a picture of some rando on a swing set? These are not schizophrenic disembodiments of our lives, but platforms of affective association that we will work through. In both recognizing the fragmentation of our life, and the absurdity of the moment, the random, dissimilar collections of images proposes something closer to memory, to the true remnants of our lives. Instagram is deeply implicated in the memory industry that pervades our culture, but the move away from curated, perfect images comes with a desire to transform the platform away from totalization, emphasizing our deeply human will to relate.  

In our paranoid, hyper-critical, overworked era, it does not come as a surprise that we desire to connect what cannot be, to rise above the disconnected, fragmented times. Our impulse to archive has become something other than an attempt to cleanly document our lives. The photo-dump is a jumping off-spot for interpretation, a point of departure for understanding the montage of our lives. These are not passive posts, they are deeply active and deeply personal in a moment where we are desperately grasping for ways to express what has happened to us, what has happened to our lives. These are the aesthetics of resistance that recognize the crisis of our time. Think of the film reel, the scrapbook or the montage. Where cultural, collective memory fails us, where mass media distorts our perception of reality, we will return to the blurry image: to that ghost of life. It’s there, in these traces, in the images that disturb our symbolic order of influencer-utopia, that we will articulate our monuments outside the realm of commodity-media. When the visions of our future fail us, we will create our own. And when they silence us, when they repress our realities, we will sort through the landfill and recover, and ultimately connect, what they couldn’t.

images taken from Bella Hadid’s instagram