Sunday, August 25

PRIME: The Graduation Zeitgeist


(Nicole Anisgard Parra)

(Nicole Anisgard Parra)


Kyle Rubalcava crouched down, bringing his near 6-foot frame to the ground. The middle school teacher and graduation photographer quickly shot a test photo, then told his clients to walk toward him on the count of three.

Nine men stepped forward, adorned in ironed white button-up shirts, dark pants and leather shoes. Their shiny blue Class of 2019 sashes danced to the wind blowing through the Royce Hall archways. The guys walked side by side, laughing as they approached Rubalcava and his clicking camera.

The group arrived at the shoot equipped with a folding table, nine bottles of champagne and some beer. They described their vision – popping champagne, playing beer pong in Shapiro Fountain and their ultimate goal – to recreate “The Bachelorette” rose ceremony.

“Let it be clear, it’s all out of irony,” said one of them. The rest of them, nearly in unison, said, “Same.”

The demand for graduation photos hasn’t always been this high. Despite how emblematic of graduation they now seem, staged campus photos are a fairly new tradition – one that is most visible on graduates’ Instagram pages. Part of this is just due to changes in the student body.

The group of nine men cracked jokes, and Rubalcava gave instructions to help them feel comfortable in front of the camera.

They’re just one of the many groups – some of which trek to campus at 6 a.m. decked out in formal wear – hoping to take their photos. Rubalcava said after spring break and throughout spring quarter, popular locations like Royce Hall and the Bruin Bear statue become increasingly busy until graduation.

Jay Dawson, a second-year mechanical engineering student who also takes graduation photos, said it seems like everyone wants to take photos in the same places at the same time.

“Everyone will like sunrises – the sunset kind of implies the end – sunrise is more of a beginning,” Dawson said.

But the demand has created an increasing number of problems for the university. Members of the Royce Hall custodial crew said cleaning up after graduation shoots requires detailed work, especially when confetti sticks to champagne on the ground. UCLA custodian Ranoya Exum said students throw champagne and confetti until ushers come out before events to stop them. All this cleaning has to happen up to twice a day in order to keep Royce Hall ready for events.

A photo of confetti on the ground.
(Daniel Leibowitz/Daily Bruin staff)
Grad photos haven’t always been this way.

“Nowadays, with the rise of social media, people can wear their own colors, and not just be confined to the black gown
Natalie Marron, an alumna who graduated in 1980 and a former Daily Bruin staffer, said students used to adhere to graduation trends by simply attending the intimate ceremonies held by departments, rather than taking elaborate photos on campus. Rachelle Friedman, a 1984 graduate, said she also remembers there being graduation fuss – the yearbook even forgot to publish her photo the year she graduated.

“We were proud of it, we loved UCLA, we were thrilled to be there, but it wouldn’t have dawned on us to go take pictures,” Friedman said. “You just got your diploma and that was it. There was the yearbook, I look at it every so often if I want to look somebody up, but no, it was nothing special.”

Kaveri Subrahmanyam, a psychology professor at California State University, Los Angeles, said young people strategically present themselves online. A study she co-authored that looked at the comparisons people make between themselves and others on Facebook showed that these strategic presentations help people solidify their identities, which can be linked to their well-beings. But these comparisons can also have negative effects.

“There are suggestions that frequent use of social media apps may be associated with unhealthy social comparison,” Subrahmanyam said. “People who are more susceptible to social comparison may be influenced to do the same when viewing pictures posted by people in their online networks.”

That comparison might be driving students to find new ways to document their college years. Chris Lew, an alum and graduation photographer, said he thinks the recent trend might be due to outdoor graduation photos giving students a chance to express themselves in a way that studio portraits don’t.

“Nowadays, with the rise of social media, people can wear their own colors, and not just be confined to the black gown,” Lew said.

It’s true that most people think trends caused by social media are something to stand against. But the rise of graduation photos isn’t necessarily a bad thing. New traditions, like graduates swimming in the Inverted Fountain after their last finals, which wasn’t a custom when Marron graduated, are invented all the time.

“I think people have moved toward having fun traditions to make graduation more meaningful, to make their college days more meaningful, than we did,” Marron said.

Now, though, the fountain is on, the sun is setting and the seniors are ready to pose.

On the staircase between Royce and Haines Hall, the group of nine stands split. On the right, seven men stand, each holding roses. Across from them, on the left, just two, hands empty, stare at a single remaining rose, held by a group member’s girlfriend, as they all pose with slight smiles on their faces. In a second, Rubalcava will snap a photo, his camera’s telltale click capturing the friends’ playful expressions forever.

“People have moved toward having fun traditions to make graduation more meaningful, to make their college days more meaningful, than we did
“Everyone does them,” one of the men said. “Your parents want them, secretly you kind of want a few just to remember. You won’t admit it, but it’d be nice to look back.”

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Senior staff columnist

Said was an assistant Opinion editor from 2018-2019. He previously contributed as an opinion columnist for the section and writes about issues surrounding diversity and student life. He also manages the Daily Bruin's various podcasts.


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