Every year, I tell myself the same thing. This year will be different. This year I won’t get attached to the high school kids, I won’t follow their lives and times, and I won’t feel a sense of loss when they graduate. And every year, I fail in this endeavor.

It’s hard to keep my distance when I get to know these kids as they grow up, particularly when I watched their parents grow up and graduate, and occasionally I even know a few of their grandparents. (That’s not as hard to imagine as it once was, since I am now a grandparent myself.)

Usually the first graduation I cover in May is East Central University’s, followed by as many of the high schools as I can squeeze in. 

The air is alive with potential at graduations. We hope for and wonder about our grads: Will they become who we imagine, who they imagine? Too many times, they don’t, and it can be heartbreaking sometimes to see kids we thought had the right stuff, who had potential, founder in the post-graduate environment. Still, hope.

Maybe part of my feelings about graduation are connected to the fact that we are about to move into the hot, lazy summertime, full of softball camps, band camps, cheer camps, peach festivals, Fourth of July celebrations and more. The school year seems long, then when it ends, it seems too short.

But I digress. When it comes to photographing graduations, I have a slightly different agenda than most of the people in attendance: illustrating graduation for our readers. While most friends and family will photograph their own kids, my goal is to translate the event into coverage. It’s not always easy, since having so many photographers in one place can create an atmosphere of “pose-and-grin,” but if I’m fast enough and sneaky enough, I can make it work. Candid photos of events like graduations and awards ceremonies always convey more than posed photos because they express the emotion of the moment.

To me, the oddest thing about graduation is the attire. Not only do the candidates wear something they will seldom if ever wear again — their cap and gown — but over the years we’ve seen what’s under the gown change again and again. In the 1990s, for example, the kids made extra effort to dress with as much grunge as possible. By the mid-2010s, though, kids were mostly sporting the highest fashion possible. When I graduated in 1981, under my gown was my “church” three-piece suit.

Don’t forget that you need to experience and enjoy graduation, not just photograph it. I see too many people these days watch the important events of their own lives on screens instead of with their naked eyes. It’s one thing to take some pictures, but it’s another altogether to obsess about it. Take pictures, sure, but be there for graduation. And remember, while it’s okay to tell the social media world how proud you are of your graduate, nothing is more important than telling them how proud you are.