The HUJI Phenomenon
For the uninitiated, HUJI is a wildly popular smartphone app that lets you take pictures that basically look like they’re off of a disposable camera from the 90s, even including light leaks. It’s a filter, of course, but it provides an aesthetic that even seasoned photographers (who spend tons of time working on the lighting and colors of their photos) will just post unedited HUJI shots on a regular basis. That’s a huge deal when these same photographers’ normal pictures are impeccably produced and edited. There’s something about HUJI that’s just extraordinarily appealing to a really wide range of people.
Now, there are tons of apps that allow you to edit a photo’s colors and many that make it as dead simple as applying a filter. So then, why is HUJI so popular nowadays when that app category is so saturated?
The nostalgia factor
The developers just hit the nail on the head with how the filter looks. Besides that it actually makes most photos appear more flattering, it really embodies (albeit maybe in an overstated way) the look and feel of a 90s disposable camera. It even has the little date in the corner, which is the current month and day but with ’98 as the year. Eternally 1998.
You get the sense that you’re flipping through an old family photo album, where the moment and the memory was more important than anything else. Considering that so much of (what I assume to be) the demographic that’s mainly using HUJI is around the age now that they’d have been kids then, it’s clear why this tugs on our heartstrings and makes us want to create more filtered memories.
It’s purposefully not advanced
You can’t take selfies, the pictures take a few seconds to “develop”, and the app is totally barebones. It’s purposefully as simple as can be, the same way that a real disposable camera was (aside from the instant development).
You can’t even really choose anything about how the picture comes out (aside from allowing or disallowing the light leaks). No selecting filters, nothing. You just press the button and get your picture.
Dead simple usage
You can’t even really choose anything about how the picture comes out (aside from allowing or disallowing the light leaks). No selecting filters, nothing. You just press the button and get your picture. It’s largely (I think) the same appeal of the wildly popular Fuji Instax cameras that everyone seems to have these days. A return to simplicity, something that’s been almost forgotten nowadays.
They’re even monetizing it with ads
What’s really great (for the developer) is that the screen showing your photos runs ads. Given how many people are using HUJI, this is likely generating them a serious amount of ad revenue for what is, in effect, a fairly simple app. And aside from bug fixes, it would hardly require any further development — additional features would almost take away from the main premise and the appeal of simplicity.
You could argue the case that people are tired now of overproduced photos that are perfectly lit, taken, and edited. Even the editing possible on a smartphone can take away from what a picture, in many cases, strives to do — to capture a moment. HUJI has bottled that feeling, and the app’s popularity speaks for itself.
I’m a digital strategist and occasional photographer living in New York City. Follow me at @andreikorchagin on Instagram, or visit me at andreikorchagin.com.