Commencement photographers adapt to the pandemic

Between campus, county and California restrictions, graduation photos are different from years past.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, senior photos were just another “to-do” item for busy graduates – one of the many steps students took as they looked ahead to attending graduation ceremonies, landing their first big jobs and moving to new cities.

But with changing restrictions imposed on this year’s in-person graduation ceremony and uncertain job markets, photos may be the only surefire way to commemorate their hard-earned degrees.

“[The students] do value these graduation portraits a lot more than in the past… in-person graduation is not really guaranteed…,” said Los Angeles-based photographer Stanley Wu. “By the end of our shoot, [the students] will tell me that they feel ‘it’s official now,’ they’re very elated and relieved.”

Wu, who also shoots weddings and family portraits, said these student photos account for 30% to 50% of his business. He began taking graduation photos in 2014 when he was a senior in college. Though he struggled last year when the pandemic shut down any hope of in-person events, he says that this season, things are almost back to normal.

“Even when California allowed outdoor business activity [last year], appointments were very sporadic, not busy at all,” Wu said. “But this year, activity has just exploded – I pretty much have at least one shoot every single day up until the middle or end of May.”

Biata Shem Tov, a USC junior studying economics, started her own photography business last September. She said having her first graduation season during a pandemic has been daunting, but rewarding.

“I get tested every week, and ask my clients to get tested as well beforehand,” Tov said. “With everyone getting vaccinated, things are slowly getting to be more normal... A lot of the students I’ve shot with are really hopeful about life after USC, and capturing that has been great.”

Even with business picking up, Tov and Wu say COVID-19 restrictions present some unique challenges that have forced them to get creative with their techniques.

“There [are] all these COVID-related signs on campus that get in the way of shots,” Tov said. “They put up plants around Tommy Trojan as well, but that definitely threw things off because it’s such a quintessential part of campus.”

Catherine Malzahn, a senior journalism major, had graduation photos taken on campus by photographer Betsy Newman, with her roommate since freshman year.

“Everyone was super responsible, socially distanced, campus was not crowded, the lighting was really nice, so we had a really nice time,” Malzahn said.

“Luckily we were all vaccinated and so that’s why we really felt comfortable to go onto campus,” Malzahn explained. “But if you’re not at that stage yet, then I would say definitely wait, because campus isn’t going anywhere.”

But while the newfound creativity exhibited by photographers working around COVID-19 restrictions has been beneficial to their businesses, some wish they were allowed to expend that creativity differently.

“It’s been harder to access certain schools, USC included, with Trojan Check and all… certain private schools in the area aren’t allowing anyone on their grounds at all, so I’ve done shoots at the beach, and at Urban Light,” Wu said. He also shoots photos for students at schools like Pepperdine University and Loyola Marymount University.

And when it comes to the big decision – mask on or mask off – opinions are divided. Wu said that “[his] clients are respectful of social distancing, and for most of them, the whole point is to take them without the masks.”

Tov said she’s found it to be pretty split – some of her clients want to commemorate the unusual circumstances. “Most people seem to want to remember the time, and like to leave them on,” she said. “Usually seniors would also bring champagne to pose with, but I had one girl bring a pack of Corona beer, which was a funny statement.”

Regardless, campus security has been relaxed about it. “Even at USC where there’s a lot of security guards, nobody has any issues,” said Wu. “They’re all very understanding of the situation.”