Ross Murray's Border Report
Ross Murray
is a freelance writer living in Stanstead, Quebec. You can reach him at
Posted 10.05.09
Stanstead, Quebec


School photos? Awww, shoot!

We do so many things without really thinking, usually because that's just what we've always done, things like leaving a 15 percent tip even when the service is lackluster at best, a health violation at worst. Or buying a pumpkin at Halloween for the sole purpose of mutilating it. Or, as I came to realize recently, purchasing school photos.

No one knows where the tradition of school photos began. There's not even a Wikipedia entry on it, so you know it must be shrouded in mystery.

At some point, probably not long after the invention of the daguerreotype (named after its inventor, Fred Daguerreotype), someone thought to himself, "I bet we could fleece parents by producing cheap portraits of their children year after year. Now, if only we could find some patsy organization to act as a conduit..."

Enter the schools.

I'm not talking about class photos. From an archival point of view, class photos have a purpose. Plus, as a sociological exercise, it's always interesting to predict which child will grow up to have a career in law enforcement and which will grow up to have a lot of run-ins with law enforcement.

Individual school pictures, though, are another kettle of photo fix.

I have nothing against portraits of children. Particularly in elementary school, the annual photograph is the equivalent of marking a child's height on the doorframe, a document of how much the child has grown in a year and the increasing likelihood of orthodontic intervention. Plus, as the children get older, they'll get a kick out of looking back at their bad haircuts and dazed smiles, except, of course, when you threaten to show them to their new boyfriend or girlfriend.

Consequently, we keep purchasing them year after year, even when the child doesn't want them because her hair is too poofy or she looks like she's in the middle of saying "Mesopotamia" or she has a hideous, ginormous zit that, ohmigod, like, EVERYone will notice!

And, once a child graduates, that last photo stays on the wall forever. This is actually a federal law. Every time I visit my parents, I have to look at those beady eyes, that smirk you just want to smack, the hair that screams "Fan of 'Three's Company'" -- and my grad photo's there too.

Mine may be an ugly photograph from 1984, but it's essentially the same as my children's 2009 photos -- upper body turned slightly, chin up, smile. Photographers try to escape from this handcuffed creativity in two ways. The first is props -- desks, globes, apples, books, hay bales -- because what school isn't filled with hay bales?

The second way is the background. You can choose the plain grey cloth backdrop or even the blue backdrop that looks like you're emerging from a misty cloud (oooo! ahhhh!). Or you can choose the classic fall foliage backdrop, guaranteed to clash with absolutely every outfit. Or how about... SPACE!

These days, chances are there won't be any backdrop, just a green screen that will allow the photographer to insert the digital background of your choice (oooo! ahhhh!). Anything's possible: your school, a street scene, a circus, Abu Ghraib or... SPACE!

I suspect that this latest gimmick is merely a way for photographers to justify their fees. After all, it's not like they need to pay for film and chemicals. It's all digital. You can almost hear them thinking, "Uh-oh, everybody's got digital cameras. We better do something. Quick: let's offer them that 'Three's Company' background."

School photographers reading this might be thinking, "Whoa! We don't tell you how to write your column" (though I wish someone would). Fair enough. I'm just saying we shouldn't unthinkingly purchase these school photos of our children when we could probably produce something more creative on our own. Or you could hire a friend with a decent digital camera.

My rates are reasonable.