UA graduate Abby Bates had to cycle through a few prospective careers before she landed on being a business owner.
Bates started out studying social work her freshman year before switching over to human environmental science. She thought she might be an event planner after falling “in love” with the idea of working in the wedding industry. But that was before a birthday present changed her future.
“My husband – then boyfriend – bought me a camera for my birthday,” Bates said. “It was right around graduation season, so I started taking graduation photos and saw that I could make money doing it, so I created my business.”
Now Bates works as a graduation and wedding photographer through her self-titled company, but for others, the photography business is a seasonal occupation. The arrival of April cues a flurry of graduation photography posts in the Alabama Student Ticket Exchange Facebook group, featuring price tags and pictures of last year’s graduates popping champagne bottles in front of Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Abby Hood, a junior majoring in interior design and finance, also stumbled into photography by chance. Just as Bates did, Hood now scoops up gigs shooting graduation portraits. The most rewarding thing, Hood said, is seeing students enjoy their own portraits.
“My favorite part has to be when I see girls’ – and guys’, too – faces light up, and they get excited when they see the end result, then share their photos with others,” Hood said.
Another student, Jacob Rawson, prefers the photoshoot itself. Rawson, a junior studying elementary education, sees graduation photo sessions as an opportunity for students to share the joy they’ve experienced as a UA student. So, he follows clients’ leads.
“For me, it’s a way to be selfless and let the graduate decide what they want,” Rawson said. “The past four-plus years, they have been told what assignments to do, what classes to take and what they need to do next. When I take photos, I emphasize on going where they want to go and what they want to do, because these photos are theirs to remember and keep forever.”
Local photography hobbyist Branna Burns, a UA graduate herself, also values capturing the accomplishments that have led up to a student’s graduation.
“On campus, and particularly for graduation photos, I always make a point to take photos in places where the student has invested so much of their time,” Burns said. “So a library or the building where their department is located are always first on the list.”
While it seems that the number of burgeoning photographers on campus may be growing, so is the student demand for photoshoot sessions.
“I think it’s ‘everyone does it’ kind of thing,” Bates said. “Three years ago, I only had about 10 grads, the year after, 40, the year after, 70. It’s just a snowball effect.”
Bates, who has been taking graduate portraits since she was a junior at the University, is familiar with the trends. This year, she said, it’s been all champagne and jerseys – no more confetti and colorful dresses. But while the trends fade out and come back around, the best places to shoot on campus are holding strong.
“On campus, my favorite photos actually come from Denny Chimes,” Bates said. “You’ve got a clean background, and it’s not as crowded as other places can get.”
Rawson, who works with video for the UA football team, prefers the classic lines of Reese Phifer Hall’s columns, the iconic facade of Bryant-Denny Stadium and the Walk of Champions. As for Hood, it’s tough for her to find a campus spot that isn’t photogenic.
“I honestly love campus [as a shooting location], as basic as that sounds,” Hood said. “We have a beautiful campus, and I love to show it off.”
As commencement approaches and graduation photo season grinds to a halt, Bates continues looking forward to capturing the moments when graduates can finally relax and feel confident about their looks and accomplishments.
“I believe that words are so powerful, and if I can be the one person in their life to tell them how beautiful and awesome they are, I want to do that,” Bates said. “People look back on their photos and remember how they felt in that moment. I want them to feel so incredibly confident in themselves and know that they are something special.”