Customs
general

Exchanging Senior Portraits – A High School Custom

Item:

Q: Did you take prom pictures?

T: Yeah, yeah, yeah.  Oh! Exchanging pictures, that’s something people do, like prom pictures and senior pictures.

Q: Why do people exchange senior pictures?

T: Oh bro Ion’ know. I actually don’t know. Like… like… cause yenno people, like, write little notes on the back of it?

Q: Mhmm.

T: And it’s just, memories I guess.

Q: So did you learn about exchanging them when you started high school or what?

T: I didn’t even know!

Q: You didn’t know until you were a senior that people exchanged senior portraits?

T: I did but, like, I didn’t know, like, my freshman year.

Q: Oh, so, when did you figure out then?

T: Like…

Q: When I was a senior?

T: Ion’ know, probably. Most likely. I didn’t really talk to people.

 

Context:

This piece was collected from a high school student, denoted by ‘T’.  I inquired about any high school lore she knew about, and when she couldn’t think of any, we changed topics.  Later on in the conversation, she was prompted by my question about prom pictures to mention this custom.  Though she did not have much insight into the custom which she describes, I will provide further information on it in the following section.  The informant has attended the same school that I graduated from in Hawaii for all of high school and will be graduating this May.  As seen in the conversation above, she most likely learned the custom of exchanging senior portraits from when I approached graduation at the end of senior year and began preparing portraits to give to my teachers and friends.  The informant also mentions how she is especially aware of this custom now that it is her turn to partake in it; her peers have already begun taking casual pictures to use and she spoke to me about how she wants one of her friends to take her portraits as well.  The informant seems to primarily take this custom as just another one of those things high school seniors do before graduation, and as she said in the exchange, something you do “for the memories”.

 

Additional Personal Notes:

I can elaborate more on this custom, having participated in it myself when I graduated high school.  It should be noted that prom photos are exchanged as well between high school students, which may have reminded the informant about the exchange of senior portraits.  Photos from formal dances, including proms and winter formals, are generally exchanged amongst all grade levels; senior portraits, on the other hand, are exclusive to the graduating class.  They are commonly exchanged among graduating seniors and their closest friends (which may be other seniors or underclassmen), as well as their teachers and advisors, in the weeks leading up to graduation.  Oftentimes, the photo-givers would handwrite notes on the frames of portraits before giving them out, typically something along the lines of a thank you message or a good luck message.  I learned this custom from having upperclassmen friends who graduated before me; some of them gave me their portraits as well.  This custom is most commonly passed on through connections with graduating seniors, like if you received one as an underclassman for example.  In addition, some teachers would also display their collection of portraits from students in their classrooms, so students would be able to learn about this custom through that as well.

 

Analysis:

Having also participated in this custom when I graduated high school, my analysis of its significance has a personal bias because of the role it played for me during this time.  Since it is temporally exclusive to the weeks leading up to graduation and exclusive to members of the graduating class, I believe the custom of exchanging senior portraits is about reinforcing social relationships in a time of changing identity.  Although a student’s plans after high school may be solidified by this time, and she may spend her last few weeks enjoying time with her peers, there still remains a level of anxiety – particularly pertaining to her social relationships she has built throughout high school as a familiar environment is left behind for the uncertainty of life after graduation.   As such, exchanging senior portraits is a material way of reinforcing certain social relationships before they are tested, especially because they are selectively exchanged among friends.  Giving a friend your senior portrait is essentially communicating “I remember you” and “I want you to remember me”.  Furthermore, in the age of digital media, a tangible portrait literally holds more weight than merely texting each other photos.  In the case of exchanging with teacher or advisors, the senior portraits serve a similar purpose of reinforcing these social relationships because you would give them to your favorite and/or most influential teachers as a thank you and final goodbye.  As such, giving out senior portraits is, in fact, about the memories of the social relationships you built during high school and reinforcing them before you make the transition into adulthood.

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