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The money and stress and failed hairdos of school picture day

Why do the over-priced, weirdly-posed portraits of our youth hold such sway over us now?

An elementary school child wearing a mortarboard and smiling for her portrait.
School photos are profitable for one big company and they cause stress for the rest of us.
Getty Images

“My school photos rarely see the light of day,” Marcos, a man from Colorado who used to be very goth, tells me in a Twitter message.

His parents were Catholic and did not approve of his long hair or spiked bracelets or Slipknot t-shirts or combat boots or trips to Hot Topic, and his dad often stole his black nail polish. But his junior year school photo features all of them — smuggled to school in his backpack — and his parents bought copies of it anyway: “It may not have been sent out in the Christmas card. But my parents still loved me and wanted to have photos of everything.”

He now wears bow ties and is known around the office as a clean-cut “crazy socks guy.” But the old photo is nice. “It’s exactly who I was and how I wanted to portray myself at the time.”

Marcos is not the only person for whom a school photo has held significance long into adulthood, and I know this because I put out one measly tweet asking for grown-ups with stories of memorable K-12 portraiture and received a dozen responses basically immediately. The stories were as fresh and crisp as a stack of wallet-sized portraits someone paid $30 for and kept in the plastic wrap for 20 years. Nobody’s memories had faded.

“I’m 25 and to this day I’ll never feel as photogenic as I did for my tenth grade student ID,” a Boston woman named Carmen messaged me. “My permanently captured youth and beauty haunts me.” Carmen was having what she calls “beginner’s luck” with hair products, pouting, and wearing a purple American Apparel hoodie — “you know the one,” she says, and I do.

“I have one that was so bad I showed it to my therapist last week,” a New York woman named Helen messaged me. “I was so embarrassed that I made myself sick so I could go home after it was taken lol.” Helen is 12 in the photo and it was taken the day before 9/11. She is wearing a purple shirt that says “Kittens!”

“I believe I got it from Pac Sun and I thought ‘Kittens!’ had to be some kind of sexual reference but didn’t know what, but I wore it anyway to be ~edgy~ And the hair was my misguided attempt at wielding a flat iron,” she says. (Her hair doesn’t really look that bad if you ask me.) “There were a bunch of wallet-sized ones, which I scribbled all over with a Sharpie. My mom was PISSED, I remember her screaming that we didn’t have the money for pictures in the first place.”

This is a horrifying memory, obviously: terrorism, mom yelling at you, too young to know what “Kittens!” might mean. But it’s also well-recounted and quite vivid, so Helen, it seems to me, knows that a good story is worth more than a good picture.

The author with a memorable haircut!
Margaret Tiffany
The necklace was sewn into the dress!
Margaret Tiffany

The best photo ever taken of me was taken by a student portrait photographer when I was in third grade. This is one of my less palatable beliefs — that I was most conventionally attractive when I was 7. But I was! I’m wearing a shockingly normal shirt in a flattering red-orange, I’m smiling like a person who has control of her face, I look self-possessed and happy, like I know a gap-tooth is going to be in fashion by the time I’m a grown-up, and like I haven’t yet met the fraternity social chair who would say that it makes me look like Michael Strahan.

Unfortunately, this is not the case with any of my other school photos. In the others, my bangs are parted in the middle or I’m wearing an “authentic” shark tooth necklace or I’m slouching into an expression of pure pain and discomfort, which is still how I react to having my photo taken. I have never healed from the experience of worrying that the result will be horrible, and moments later, confirming that it was. Made all the worse by the one good photo! I had poise and it slipped away!

With back-to-school season on the horizon and in the windows at Old Navy and the “promotions” section of our inboxes, now felt like a good time to sort out some shared issues around school portraits. They theoretically serve a purpose for educational institutions (attendance software, yearbooks, ID cards, etc.) but there is also a lot of money involved, and a ton of stress that is clearly unrelated to the practical concern of having something to show the police if a kid pulls a Ferris Bueller.

Why do these photos feel so strangely powerful, like they say something essential about how we think about ourselves for the rest of our lives?

School photos are a meme, the stars of BuzzFeed lists like “55 Super Awkward Middle School Photos” and “15 Picture Day Fails That Are So Bad They’re Good,” and slightly ruder tabloid roundups like the Daily Mail’s “Say cheese! The world’s WORST high school yearbook photos range from strange and scary to just plain hilarious.”

More like a nightly news “hacker” segment background.
We Have Lasers!!!!!!!!

The most popular school photo internet joke is probably the Tumblr “We have lasers!!!!!!!!!!” run by writer and Who? Weekly co-host Lindsey Weber from 2008 to 2015. Weber posted submissions from hundreds of people who had coerced their parents into paying the extra fee for a special backdrop on school picture day in the 1980s and 1990s, when Lifetouch offered, well, lasers as an option. A Michigan man named Tony submitted multiple laser portraits to the blog, writing “The first one, I made my parents get the lasers because everyone else was picking that in fifth grade. The second one (sixth grade), I was the ONLY one who had lasers. What. A. Loser. Haha!” A superfan of “We have lasers!!!!!!!!!!” even dressed as a laser portrait background for Halloween in 2010.

Lasers were phased out by the time I was in school, but the option to pay extra for a background that looked like movie curtains or glittery scrapbook paper remained. I once — only once! — convinced my mom to spring for a background of kelly green, then opted for a shirt covered in red and black roses and red lace. The resultant photos show an absolutely nightmarish level of anti-taste, which bothered me for a time but now is eclipsed by worrying about my finances on a macro-level (buy a house? In this life?) and hoping my parents never die.

The delight of “We have lasers!!!!!!!!!!” is that all of the photos are equally bad, featuring, as they do, lasers. The whole ritual of school portraits is absurd, and most of the things that concerned us as children pale in comparison to the pain of adulthood. The discomfort of “We have lasers!!!!!!!!!!” is that it screams “waste of money” and dredges up the strange feeling of being a kid and not having a real grasp of how the family finances worked or why it should be such a big deal for you to have lasers if you want lasers.

School photos, in addition to a meme, are a scam.

According to the New York Times, “a $50 portrait package costs an independent photographer about $5.50 to print.” Typically, a share of whatever the photographers make goes to the school, which makes this slightly easier to tolerate, but even that is kind of a foggy business proposition — it’s not as though “Picture Day” is ever actively framed as a fundraiser, and as the Times points out, the money is really more like a kickback (a polite word for “bribe”).

Classic lasers.
We Have Lasers!!!!!!!!!

Meredith Borgdas, editor-in-chief of the parenting and business site Working Mother, has taken issue with this for years, and tells me she recently paid $90 just for the digital rights to two photographs, one each of her two sons.

“The prices parents end up paying for unflattering photos are way too high,” she says. “I haven’t been happy with a single photo that my child’s school has taken even though at least one of my children is very photogenic.” But whoever came up with the idea of school portraits, she concedes, is “a marketing genius,” making parents feel guilty if they don’t help their kids pick out an outfit and a haircut and a background and then shell out for whatever comes of it.

“It’s kind of like Valentine’s Day, they made everyone feel guilty if they didn’t buy a red card for their partner,” she says, but does anybody even carry wallets with those little photo album folders in them anymore? “No!”

Okay, but what of the system that is doing all this to us?

Lifetouch, the largest portrait photography company in the country, which also does sports team photos and church directories, reported $759 million in revenue last year. About half of all school portraits are taken by Lifetouch, according to the New York Times, including the ones taken of me at Bloomfield Central School District between 1997 and 2010, according to some administrator I spoke to on the phone briefly who did not ask why I was inquiring.

It’s so big it doesn’t even have to advertise, though it does advertise in pretty funny ways: Like with sponsored content in People magazine, in which former Disney Channel star Tia Mowry-Hardrict discusses her bond with her children and how it’s bolstered by professional photography. Or this commercial in which a young boy combs his hair in close-up nine times before the camera zooms in on his teeth.

The New York Times recently profiled a school photographer named Chris Wunder, who runs a PortraitEFX franchise in Texas and hates Lifetouch, which is very big and powerful and which supplies its salesmen with “fat expense accounts” to help steal schools away from the little guys. (Wunder is quite the businessman himself and recommends scanning local obituaries to keep track of when your competitors die. “The industry rule is you do three days of mourning before you go in and make a sales call to a new principal,” he told the Times.)

I have to say, while I found this report thrilling — and I rarely want anyone to point out good things about large companies to me, particularly when I’m not asking — there are some remarkable facts about Lifetouch’s history that I feel you simply must know. For one, it was originally called National School Studios and was started by a pair of buddies who worked together in a photography studio in Missouri in the 1930s. They supposedly invented 3”x 5” photos — which came in fancy display folders! — and traveled the country selling them to schools.

According to a book that, admittedly, seems to have been published by Lifetouch itself, possibly written by a corporate ghostwriter, the company nearly went bankrupt after World War II because it decided to offer no-interest loans to all of its salespeople, who were primarily veterans, to help them buy cars and houses. In 1977, the company offered its employees not just some stock in the company, but all of it, and they didn’t charge them for it, they just put it all in a trust (this reportedly ended in disaster, but I refuse to speak ill of a rich person’s choice to mess with their own money). Unfortunately, but inevitably, the founders died, the company’s name was changed to “Lifetouch” (gross) for vague reasons, and it ate up competitor after competitor over the course of four decades, most recently CPI Corp — which operated the once-popular Sears and Walmart photo studios — in 2013.

Now it has 22,000 employees, one of whom did a Reddit AMA in 2013 who described her experience saying, “The actual work wasn’t bad. I disliked some of the questionable practices of the company. Working 12-hour days and getting only a 20-minute break (lucky to get that one of the days). But I wasn’t in a position to really complain since I needed the job.”

Lifetouch was acquired by Shutterfly for $825 million early last year, and the trust that gave current and former employees a large stake in the company was dissolved with a corporate buyout. Hope they got rich! I suspect they didn’t, and that may be why they filed a class-action lawsuit against the company.

Almost certainly, no one is getting much out of school photos except for Lifetouch, and for everyone else they are just some strange thing that happened because it was the rules.

Nozlee Samadzadeh, a senior engineer at Vox Media, showed me her 10th-grade photo, which was taken shortly before she had double jaw surgery.

“I remember in this photo experimenting with smiling closed-mouthed instead of with teeth, which exposed my overgrown lower jaw / missing teeth,” she writes. “Now all I can think is how fucking adorable I look, even though my face looks very different now.” Her parents didn’t buy copies of it — “I think it was an immigrant thing, buying the photos was a bourgeois luxury we almost never took advantage of” — but she’s held on to the free promotional copy for 15 years, to remind her that she experienced herself wrong the first time.

The real power of school portraits, to me, is that we so often spend much of our lives attempting to disprove what we imagined they said about us — that we were weird or didn’t understand humidity or couldn’t use a flatiron or move about the world in the way in which we would like. A school photo is a tortured and overpriced but ultimately valuable timestamp of a moment when childhood was forced to confront the boring formalism and stifling identity rigidity of adulthood, and rebelled without having to try. Self-image is never a simple project, but that is especially true when you are young and your sense of who you are is so watery. And you only have 30 seconds to look as “good” as possible, which is hard in part because (hopefully) you don’t yet spend that much of your time worrying about what you look like.

Yet, gorgeously, because the photos are from youth, they are also a reminder that there is time still to pivot.

My friend Julia Moser, a TV producer who recently moved to Los Angeles for reasons that don’t make sense to me emotionally, texted me about a horrible memory after seeing my tweet, including a photo of the inside of an old yearbook. She is 8 years old in the picture, and looks, to my eyes, like Shirley Temple if Shirley Temple’s curls weren’t fake as hell.

“Basically that was the photo that ushered in my really awkward phase,” Julia wrote. “I had just gotten my hair cut super short by accident, my grandma told the guy what to do and it was pre-puberty so I looked like twin brothers with the red-headed boy in my class. I wore a headband to make me look more feminine but I pushed it back and it made it look like I had horns. Also I had just gotten braces.” Julia was understandably very angry at her mother for not pointing out the horn situation. I would be too! But her mother, lovingly, did not buy any prints of the photo that Julia hated so much, which is more generous that my mother ever was with me.

“I’m basically a person who has embraced my awkward phase as a formative and necessary character-building experience but I hate this photo so much,” Julia says, and we understand.

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