Molly Morin climbs across the rocky shore, shivering in a flowy sundress as saltwater sprays around her. Her photographer trails behind her, silently taking photos as she smiles and poses in the freezing air of a New England coastline just before sunrise. This scene highlights not only Molly’s appearance but her adventurous spirit, something that senior portraits at Oyster River have always strived to achieve.
ORHS has a rich tradition of senior portraits. Rather than requiring all students to take their photos in-school (traditionally in a black gown or suit) like many high schools, ORHS allows each student to choose their own photographer and style. While students have the option to use their regular school picture, the vast majority of students choose the portrait route, as it allows them to show off their individuality. Some take their pictures with pets, some choose to include an aspect of their sport or club, and some prefer to keep it simple with only themselves in the frame. Whatever the format, the goal of the portrait is to allow the personality of the senior to shine through, and every photographer and shooting location has an impact on the ultimate style of the photoshoot. Here’s a deeper look into this time-honored tradition and those who are involved in making it happen.
Luckily for ORHS students, there are a wealth of local photographers that represent varied styles and methods, but all tout the same quality portraits. Elise Sullivan, a Durham-based microbiologist and photographer, says her scientific attention to detail allows her to really get to know her senior subjects.
“I’ve always loved observational data,” Sullivan said. “I’m very visually focused[and] observationally focused. I find photography to be a natural extension of my skills as a biologist in a much more creative setting.” Her love of the natural world can be seen in the senior portraits she’s taken, her favorite shooting location being the beach.
As to why she focuses on senior portraits, Sullivan explained that “I really, really love the age group between late high school and college because that’s the verge of adulthood, and I find it a very dynamic age to work with.” According to Sullivan, in order to create a great portrait of this age group, there needs to be a sense of openness between the senior and their photographer. “It’s not just what they reveal,” Sullivan said of the seniors she photographs, “but their willingness to play during these photoshoots.” Sullivan elaborated on this by saying that it’s easy to simply pose and smile for a picture; what makes a portrait is the willingness of the senior to let their guard down and be vulnerable with their photographer.
Chase Amarosa (‘21), who has transformed his interest in photography into a business by taking his classmates’ senior portraits, agreed that an important part of any good senior portrait is vulnerability.
“I think a good senior portrait is one where the model feels comfortable,” Amarosa said. When the senior feels at ease with their photographer, Amarosa explained, is when the personality of the subject truly shines through and the best pictures happen. The photographer is more likely to catch glimpses of genuine reactions: smiles, laughs, thoughtfulness. “I really like to reflect people’s personalities and passions through their photos,” said Amarosa. “Even the format: the placement, the posing, the lighting, can say a lot about who the person is. I love not only capturing the face, but the essence of the person.”
As a senior himself, Amarosa brings a much more personal touch to the portraits he takes, since he’s friends with many of his clients. This relationship also allows him to be more experimental with his portraits and explore his creative side.
“I would say I take more unconventional photos than a typical photographer… I really embrace creativity,” Amarosa explained. He went on to describe how he tries locations and perspectives that might otherwise be overlooked or shied away from. For example, Amarosa took the portraits of one ORHS senior among long grasses at a local park. The location created interesting shadows on the senior’s face, which added depth and intrigue, according to Amarosa. Overall, Amarosa’s style definitely has appeal to the more adventurous seniors, those who don’t mind taking risks and trying new things with their portraits.
Shooting by the ocean, Morin (‘21) had an unconventional portrait experience herself, which she described as “incredible.”
“We ended up going to Plum Island in Massachusetts at four o’clock in the morning so we could see the sunrise. It was two degrees, and I was in a sundress,” Morin described. But despite the cold, she said she had fun with the photoshoot and loved the portraits. As for the tradition itself, Morin had nothing but words of glowing support.
“[Portraits] really set you apart from the rest,” Morin said. “It seems like more of an accomplishment to graduate high school with this picture that you worked extra hard for. You didn’t just comb your hair and sit on the stool that everyone sits on… it’s different.”
Karen VanDyke, a social studies teacher at ORHS and the advisor of the Yearbook Club, agreed with Morin that senior portraits are a special tradition that allows each senior to show off what makes them unique.
“I think the photos are very unique to each person,” VanDyke said, going on to explain that she always learns something about her students from the way their portraits turn out, as every senior adds their own personal touch. But regardless of the themes involved, whether it be pets or a sport or something else, VanDyke noticed a trend in the best portraits every year.
“I think a good senior portrait is one where the photographer is able to capture you in a genuine, happy pose,” VanDyke explained. “The ones that really stick out are the ones where you can really tell that [the students] are enjoying capturing this moment in time.”
Allowing students to seek out their own photographers seems to provide for more natural portraits, VanDyke noted. Thankfully for ORHS students, Oyster River does senior portraits a little differently than many other schools, something VanDyke attributed to the diverse and genuine nature of the portraits she goes through each year.
“A lot of schools do a specific, formalized portrait because it erases differences,” VanDyke explained. “At Oyster River, you get to choose how your picture is shown.” This allows students to express themselves more freely, demonstrating the true diversity in the graduating class. VanDyke added that while this can also make socioeconomic differences more evident between students, the finished products are almost always indistinguishable in terms of quality. This is especially due to the technology available today — smartphone cameras are more advanced than ever before — and the resources the Oyster River community provides, such as free portraits taken by ORHS teacher Cathy Stetson.
“People do a really great job,” Amarosa said of the photographers represented in each yearbook, “and every senior portrait I see, I really enjoy.”
So come June, when you’re flipping through the yearbook, take a second longer to look at the senior portraits and think about everything that went into them. Observe each student in their element; it’s like your own little snapshot into their personalities.