gabby class of 2024 77 copy1

A spin on senior portraits

To the class of 2024: congratulations on all you have accomplished and please, keep challenging us!

a reflection of a graduating senior in moving water as she sits on the creek bank

Its graduation day here in my DC suburban paradise and many of my friends will look on with immense pride tinged with grief as their baby walks across a stage to receive their high school diploma. Its both the end of something and the beginning of something beautiful too.

Enter the amazing G….

I don’t identify as a senior portrait photographer but I really do enjoy them when graduating seniors wants control over how they are seen and are willing to collaborate in the process. I give that autonomy to all children, so it tracks that I would say, “what do you want to do?” to a young adult as well.

As for generic portraits of pretty girls wearing sundresses in a garden or boys on a football field or looking wistful from the hood of a car – or even just portraits in a cap and gown – there are plenty of photogs are going to do that much better and cheaper than me – there’s no lack of options.

I’m not your typical family photographer but maybe your graduating senior isn’t so typical either! Maybe we can make something really real, memorable and maybe even cool – like the old folks say.

I begin with a survey to get a sense of what they do like and don’t like – everything to environments to moods to interests to clothing. G took it one step further and shared a Pinterest board to give me a sense of what she had in mind, I loved literally “seeing” into her style.

But mostly, G – now a rising environmental science major – feels most free in the wild. She knew that being part of nature was how she wanted to be seen. Her mom was entirely hands off, wanting to be surprised by what we came up with. That’s a serious jedi mom trick right there! (And she loved them.)

G and I met up one day on a trail we both thought might be perfect about, just to scout it out and make sure it was what we had envisioned. While we strolled I had the great pleasure of finding out more about her family, interests, fav TV shows and very interesting thoughts on 90’s visual storytelling vs. today. The process was fun before it even began.

There’s this thing that happened while we were shooting and I’m not sure if I played it right…

We were exploring a creek that backed up to private property. As I pulled out the camera, a man who had been mowing his lawn on the other side of the creek stopped what he was doing to come over and tell us what he thought ought to be in the background. He started with, “I’m not a photographer, but…” And even if he had been, wtf. (Clearly you are not a photographer, we have a CODE.)

I did not stop him while he was mowing his lawn to tell him how he could be mowing his lawn better – I assumed that he was fully capable of the job he doing. I felt no need to stop my work to walk over and say, “I’m not a landscaper, but….” Because even if I had been…. wtf.

Where I think I went wrong was that I was polite. “Oh, thanks, I appreciate it” blah blah blah. I could see that we might set foot on his property in order to cross over the creek before the water got deep, so a practical part of me said “keep it friendly.”

But another part of me was in the safety default mode, programmed into me from birth: “be accommodating and polite and never make anyone, especially a man, feel uncomfortable.”

He assumed I was lesser. And I allowed him to insert himself, as though he was more, in order to maintain civility and possibly safety.

All throughout the spring, all over our country I’ve witnessed college graduates make people in powerful positions very, very uncomfortable. They have worn keffiyehs over their gowns, brandished Palestinian flags while walking across stage and turned their backs on famous but insincere keynote speakers. They have spoken out about genocides far away while pointing to the hypocrisy deep within the institutions of higher learning issuing their degrees. They challenged their government. I’m not talking about students who alienated or harassed Jewish students – which did happen – let’s be clear: that’s not activism, its bullying. I’m talking about the students who peacefully asked for the grown ups to answer for the mess of a world they were handing while delivering empty, “you can do anything!” speeches.

Anything but express themselves apparently: audiences clutched their pearls and media outlets pounced on the opportunity to lament our lost youth, all while blaming soft parenting.

I don’t think our youth are lost at all. And we might have taught them better than we, ourselves, know how to do.

(OK, I know, a “hey, I do senior portraits!” post got a pretty complicated. But we go deeper around here. Not typical, remember?)

Anyway, these graduates are handling it. They handled their freshman year from home in a pandemic. They handled a racial reckoning that changed the Confederate names of their schools and, in at least 3 Virginia public schools, the names changed back before they could even walk across a stage. They handled book bans and a whole childhood of active shooter drills. They are not waiting on anyone to make things right.

Back to the creek, G and I just looked at each other as the lawn mower not-a-photographer walked away from us to return to yard work. She knew, as I know, that she will face this situation again – “nice” men who only want to “help” – especially in the sciences.

Unless we all start getting a lot less comfortable a whole lot faster. Including me.

So to G and the class of 2024, I really do think you’ve got this.

Keep questioning authority. Never lose your humanity. You belong to yourself always.

Now go save the world. And I’m really sorry that I wasn’t a better helper myself. But I think I’m raising one, I’m trying to do better and I hold hope. You make me so, so hopeful.

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