The story of how senior portraits get made can be told through what they are, but also what they are not. For starters, senior portraits are not Crystal Wylie’s job.
“It wasn’t something that was an initiative of the College or even of this department,” said the 2005 alumna who is the director of digital multimedia strategy. “We are in no way required to do this because we have enough multimedia work without senior portraits, but we wanted to give this gift to seniors.”
Since 2017, Wylie has led a team of student photographers in more than 650 professional photo sessions for graduating seniors. Each session is 20 minutes and, in the world outside Berea, would cost a student upwards of $100-$200. For many of them, it’s their first experience having their photos taken with professional lights and backdrops. They bring props. A future veterinarian brought a snake, and a tennis player, her racket and ball. The quick lights capture movement, subtle changes in facial expressions.
“Not only are we giving them a product they can use over and over again, but they don’t have to pay for it,” Wylie said. “We’re giving them an experience that they probably wouldn’t have had anywhere.”
But if there’s no strategic value to the photos for Berea, why do it?
“Marketing and communications offering senior portraits is great!” said student photography manager and business major Tyler Rocquemore ’22. “It really does have a full-circle effect. Students who take senior portraits in the photography department gain real photography skills and customer service skills and build a portfolio. The students receiving the photos have a leg-up in the workforce. They already will have professional head shots for LinkedIn
or a staff page at their next job.”
For the 11 student photographers working 10-hour weeks on Wylie’s team, senior portraits are not part of their career paths. One student is learning to develop software. Another, a biochemistry major, plans to be a doctor. All the student photographers have their respective majors, which may or may not include photography. Wylie says it’s not just practical photography experience for them.
“It became this amazing opportunity for our students to practice all year long with their peers,” Wylie said. “It’s not just the practical photo experience. It is the interaction, the interpersonal communication and making connections, but also showing those seniors we care about them. Even though it’s not their career path, it’s something that is a creative outlet they’re going to have for the rest of their lives.”
It’s also not about how good the students are with the camera. It’s about how good they are with the subjects.
“When starting out as a new photographer, my biggest concern is not if you can use a professional camera,” Wylie said. “Most of them have never been introduced to things like the exposure triangle or artificial lighting. We ask, ‘how are you going to treat everyone that comes in our studio?’
We want to make sure that they understand that their interactions with our clients are our top priority. It’s not how good you are with a camera.”
“I love taking senior portraits because it gives me a chance to learn about seniors,” said student photography manager and business major Nay Kaw ’23. “They’ve shared with me their most challenging times, happiest moments and lessons they’ve learned through it. Senior portraits capture a pivotal moment that seniors will remember forever. I hope they share these photos with their family and friends to thank everyone who helped them on their journey and inspire others like them to pursue higher education.”
So, if it’s not her job, there’s no strategic marketing value for the College, it’s not the student photographers’ career paths and it’s not about technical expertise, what are senior portraits about then?
“When you put that stole on them, it makes the dream of graduating real to them,” Wylie said. “And that moment, you get to see it because you’re the one putting the stole on, adjusting it, helping them with their cap. And through these images, we really make them feel proud of what they’ve accomplished. We get to be part of that moment where they put this cap and gown on for the first time. They get to see themselves as a Berea College graduate.”