The Instagram of the 90s

I’m old enough now to say things like “rememeber the days when…” so here I go.

Remember the days when the musky photobooth in the grotty shopping centre was Instagram?

I passed a photo machine today on my way back from work (I lied. I wasn’t walking home. I was taking a completely out of the way detour to Oxfam books where I spent £10 I don’t have on three books I don’t need. Phew, so glad I got that off my chest!) and all the memories of my youth flashed back to me.

After school a bunch of us would trek to the shopping centre on the main road with one intention in mind, photos. We were focused, we were ready, we were menacing. Ten 11 year olds, linking arm in arm, wearing a uniform of a kilt down to the ground with a huge pin holding it together and butterfly clips fluttering wildly in the Irish breeze. We were like a tiny version of Braveheart and no-one could stop us.

Every surface in the shopping centre was either tiled pale blue or mirrored, which the designer clearly didn’t realise would make the whole place look forever unclean. Especially as our chubby hands smeared across the mirrors as we passed. We didn’t even bother looking into them to see if our reflection was up to scratch for the photo. This wasn’t about that.

We would race up the large spiral staircase flanked with a huge clock face that told us we better hurry or our parents at home would be suspicious. We would skip through the tired cafe that led straight to the toilets. And in a dank corner, surrounded by public pay phones, that we would probably use to call our parents to tell them we’d be later for dinner, it stood proudly. The photo booth. The place of dreams.

It wasn’t just any photo booth, offering only passport photos, oh no, this one was fancy, even if it didn’t smell that way. This photo booth did the ‘single portrait’, and that was our quest.

Next we’d have a fight about money because a single photo was expensive when you were 11 and you needed to make sure that if you were shelling out the dough, you’d be the one allowed to take the photo home. This involved a lot of counting out pocket money coins and haggling with people about how they could take home next week’s photo instead.

Then someone would gently place the coins into the slot.

We’d hold our breath as we listened to the clang of the pounds hit the pile of money inside, that was mainly made up of our parent’s coins they had given to us for buying sensible snacks. Then it was time, the moment. We’d throw off our heavy backpacks, letting them crash on the ground. We all took a deep breath.

Then we would all run at the door of the machine, ten of us focused on an opening big enough for one person. We’d clamber inside, turning from ten individual units into one large mush of arms and legs and Pokemon keyrings. The minute our bodies were as much inside as they could be, someone with a free arm would press the button on the screen. Go.

All our faces would immediately point towards the light, like flowers that had never seen the sun. Our faces were being pulled back by the force of other people’s limbs so that we would already be smiling. But not with our eyes. In our eyes was captured that moment of determination, that pull for survival, that resolve that says “I am going to be in this photo no matter what.”

Flash. And it was all over. Then we waited.

It took ten minutes for the photo to develop. Yes, ten minutes, this was a long time ago. We occupied ourselves making prank calls on the pay phones with any extra coins we had and doing group runs to the newsagents to buy those long chalky marshmallows that would ruin our dinner.

If the machine popped out a photo that included everyone’s shining faces but only your messy french plait it was incredibly disappointing, especially if it was your turn to take the photo home.

Because then you would be made remember forever that time you failed the push your face towards the light in time.

But now the eleven year olds have Instagram and they have editing and they have celebrity idols who are only famous for taking photos of themselves. And not only do they get to remember that time they failed forever, but now everyone else gets to as well.

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