Power of the school photograph is stronger than we might realise

This week saw one of the most important, hotly-anticipated and celebrated days in the school calendar take place in my Sheffield school – and it had nothing to do with exams, results or data!

Wednesday, 9th October 2019, 9:41 am
Updated Wednesday, 6th November 2019, 3:01 pm
School photographs have changed since this image was taken at High Green in 1956

While teachers may put most of their work time into prepping for SATs and GCSEs, the kids have a very different set of priorities, and for some it doesn’t come any bigger than school photo day! As well as being a decent earner for the school and photography companies, school photo day creates a hype amongst children of all ages in school, from reception right through to Year 11. It creates a buzz at home, starting with the preparations in the morning and culminating in the moment the order form with the sample picture is taken out of the bag.

I can remember when my eldest was in pre-school and we had a rushed morning, only just getting to the classroom in time and completely forgetting about it being school photograph day. We shared a ‘what have we done’ look between ourselves before they went through the door, hair a little dishevelled and probably a few crumbs of toast spilling down their jumper as well.

They looked completely at odds next to the girls who had had their hair done by caring mums and the boys who had sported gelled-up quiffs for the first time. That picture is still around on the back of some shelf in the house, a haunting reminder of why you should check the calendar regularly. Lower down the school, photo day is all about mums and dads sending their little darlings to school all neat and tidy; I’ve even seen parents practising a nice smile ready for the click of the camera.

When you get into secondary, fashion-conscience teenagers take responsibility for the pose themselves. They know, you see. They know that this picture is going to be on the wall of their house for the next year, they know that it’s probably going to do the rounds at Christmas and get given to grandmas and great-aunts, and they know that the school’s computer system has this image of them on file for the next 12 months. Sixth Form students even have to carry the image around with them on a lanyard. So preparation for school photo day from some of the kids – in Year 9 especially, I’ve noticed - is off the charts.

They are, of course, restricted in what they can do; school uniform has to be worn and a nice sideways pose is usually the order of the day. They’re not able to wear the latest designer gear, give the two-fingered peace sign and pout into the camera like they do with their mates. Attention is paid to hair, though, and many will be up early tackling make-up to make sure this photo is going to be something special. What is a small part of the day for their teachers is a big deal for the youngsters and it’s lovely to see so many of them taking it seriously and having pride in their photos.

I was also heartened to see school photographs being the focus of an imaginative piece of art on display across London. Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen has embarked on an epic photo shoot of Year 3 classes across the city and 600 of them are now on billboards. It may come across as a slightly weird idea at first, but there are many inspirational and thought-provoking aspects to individual and class photographs.

They encourage us to reflect on change, the way that we as a society have developed in the years between our own class photographs and the ones our children have this term. It’s also about hope. A school photograph shows the adults of tomorrow as they embark on their journey through life.

In decades to come, they will look back on the young people captured in these images and ask whether the hopes and dreams they had were realised, whether their aims to help the environment amounted to anything, whether this Brexit was a good idea. One click, and these precious moments are frozen in time, to be smiled at, laughed about and cried over in the years to come.

The power of the school photograph is far stronger than most of us realise.