They gave us the flyers during Back to School night: school picture day, second week of class. I scanned the photo packages listed on the handout. There was package A, which included enough 5x7s for both grandmas, two 8x10s, and 12 wallet-sized photos for $28. Package B upped the ante: everything in package A plus six 3x5s, a class composite photo, and one image on a CD for $39. For a little extra, you could add a Mother of Pearl photo necklace or a mouse pad with your kid’s face printed on it. You can even pay $6 for a “basic facial retouch,” in case Timmy the Kindergartener needs a little digital teeth-whitening.
“I’m not doing this,” I thought, looking at the options. “I’m not paying for school pictures this year.”
Since my daughter started school three years ago, I’ve dutifully purchased school pictures every year. I even bought them from the private preschool photographer that first year, when the “cheapest” photo package was $48. “They’re memories,” I told myself as I punched my credit card number into the online form and winced. “You’ll want to look back on these one day.”
But will I, really? Let’s examine the evidence. First, there are the outdated photo packages. Twelve wallet-sized photos? One image on a CD? What parent do you know in 2018 who still uses CDs for anything or whips their kid’s school photo out of their wallet when they want to show someone a picture? That’s not a thing anymore. Now we just yank our phones out and say, “OMG, you have to see these pictures from Isla’s recital,” and force unsuspecting coworkers to scroll through 87 images of our children that they care nothing about. Is it obnoxious? Maybe. But somehow it still beats clunky CDs and keeping track of teeny tiny trading card photos.
Then there’s the fact that I never do anything with the school photos I buy. Since I started purchasing them three years ago, I have mailed exactly zero copies to the grandparents. I send them about 35 cute kid pictures a week via my cell phone, but I’ve yet to find the time to cut even one school picture off of the photo sheets they send home, stick it in an envelope, and mail it to a concerned party. In fact, I haven’t even displayed the photos in my own living room or hung them up on the fridge. They’re all in their original envelopes — three envelopes for my daughter and one for her younger brother who just started school last year — sitting on a shelf in my pantry, collecting dust and giving me less space to store my granola bars. Sometimes I think I want to get some new frames and hang them up. But then I realize there are way cuter photos of my kids on my iPhone that I could print out.
And therein lies the biggest issue with school pictures: They’re kind of hideous. At a time when we have Instagram and people hire legit photographers to conduct highly stylized family photo shoots each year, why do we really need school pictures anymore? I have personally never paid for a family photo shoot, but I know I can snap an iPhone photo of my kid smiling at the park and it will be a much better representation of who they are in that moment than a staged photo of them sitting with their hands crossed in front of a digitally inserted retro purple background.
To me, they say only, 'Have you seen this person?'
School pictures always remind me of the photos they show during stories about missing persons on the news or of the kind of photo one might frame and set out during a memorial service. They’re inherently depressing and completely devoid of personality. One could argue that they’re intended to say, “This is what your face looked like in 2018.” But to me, they say only, “Have you seen this person?”
I think school portrait photographers know they’re in a dying industry, too. You can tell by the desperate extras they’ve started offering. This year’s offerings at my kids’ school include a door hanger with their photo on it, a “dog tag” that’s just an oval-shaped color portrait on a chain, a key fob, and “wallet magnets with variety borders.”
How I’ve lived all this time without wallet magnets with variety borders, I will never know. Noticeably, they don’t offer coffee mugs, which is probably the only thing I’d willingly use that has my kid’s face on it.
When I was a kid, school pictures didn’t seem so bad compared to the other limited photo opportunities we got. Outside of the occasional family Sears trip, school pictures were one of the only times I got to sit in front of a professional photographer, and that was a big deal. My grandma would buy me these horrendous Easter dresses every spring, and then my mom would force me to wear them to school on picture day. I had to curl my hair and wear uncomfortable dress shoes that pinched my feet and made me walk like someone 78 years my senior. I resigned myself to the fact that, come school picture day each year, I’d spend my eight hours at school trying to find a discreet way to yank out my permanent tights wedgie, doomed to act as a slow-moving floral-patterned target when we played dodgeball in P.E.
It was worth it at the time to get a clear photo of myself that I could carry with me through the years and one day use to show my children how I looked when I was forced into hot rollers and wearing a dress made out of the same fabric as hospital curtains. But times have changed, and we shouldn’t feel forced into the annual tradition of spending $30+ per kid for some mediocre photos we’re probably never going to use.
I posted about not buying photos this year on my Facebook page, and one of my friends commented, “For the past 2 years, I’ve gotten the super cheap $9 package with like four pics because I didn't want the teachers to think I was heartless.”
Well, call me heartless then, because this year? I’m not buying.