Capturing the moment: HBCU graduates seize the day with creative photos￼
Photographers and videographers are turning the trend into a lucrative business
Editor’s note: The originally published version of this article repeated language, including in the headline, that had previously appeared in a 2021 piece published by Grazia USA. Through no fault of the author, the problematic phrases had been added to the story during the editorial process in a manner that fell short of Andscape’s editorial standards. The current version has been re-edited to remove the duplication.
Documenting graduation for historically Black colleges and universities has surpassed the standard studio picture with a gray or bookshelf background with degree in hand. HBCU students are spending thousands of dollars to document their big day and the photographers behind this emerging trend are quitting their day jobs because of their graduation earnings.
“I feel like the HBCU graduation photo shoot culture is huge,” said East Dockery, a graduating multimedia journalism senior at North Carolina A&T University and former Rhoden Fellow for Andscape. “Graduation itself is huge, but especially because our schools hold so much history and it’s only right to celebrate ourselves, plus what we have achieved at these institutions that were built because others would not allow us at one point in time to attend.”
Florida A&M University has been at the forefront of the growing trend. Some FAMU graduates begin to plan their shoots a year or two in advance while others have their eyes on creating a major “wow” factor.
Kendall Simmonds is a graduating pre-physical therapy senior at FAMU. She booked her photographer in June 2021 and began to plan out each detail of her shoot in August. Simmonds explained that her tactic of staying within her budget was to allow her to splurge on certain aspects.
Located on FAMU’s campus in the area called “the highest of seven hills” or “the college of love and charity,” sits a monstrous snake statue that many graduates use in their pictures. Simmonds wanted to follow this tradition, but added her own twist by opting not to wear the typical citrus orange and agricultural green. She wore a black outfit with a collared shirt, sweatshirt, skirt and sneakers.
While sporting her all-black ode to her university, Simmonds wore a pair of $1,200 Rick Owens sneakers. These sneakers have become very popular over the last two years among adults in their 20s. But Simmonds’ sneakers were not the star of the shoot — the 9-foot-long python around her neck that accompanied her second look stole the show. She explained she had seen people with smaller snakes or saw people ask a graphic designer to Photoshop a snake into their pictures.
In Simmonds’ second look photographed on campus, she wore a rustic orange floor-length gown as she posed with the python. Simmonds knew she did not want to take any shortcuts when it came to executing her idea. She went to Twitter and asked if anyone had a snake she could borrow. One of her followers responded and said his roommate had a pet snake. She contacted the owner and was able to use the snake free of charge.
“I wanted something that was going to make me stand out and of course my snake would make anyone stop scrolling,” Simmonds said. “I do actually have a fear of snakes, but we took the pictures quickly before I allowed my fear to sit in.”
Besides taking pictures on FAMU’s campus, Simmonds wanted to create a graphic similar to The Brady Bunch-style cover art. Each picture taken in a studio would represent a different era of her life while at FAMU. She wore different hats and used various props.
The coronavirus pandemic took graduation ceremonies away from millions of graduates in 2020, leaving pictures as one of the only ways to commemorate their accomplishment. For Pashur Quarles, not being able to walk across the stage at FAMU’s Alfred Lawson Jr. Multipurpose Center, being a first-generation college graduate and sneaker lover fueled his graduation shoot.
When Quarles made his initial post on Instagram, he described in his caption that the highest level of education in his immediate family is middle school. On many occasions while growing up, he would have to spilt meals with his mother. He reflected on all the times he would tell his mother that he didn’t think school was for him and that he would be home shortly.
“I didn’t really know how bad I grew up until I got to college,” Quarles said. “I didn’t think our struggles were normal, but I didn’t realize how bad our struggle was.”
Sneakers have been a part of Quarles’ life since his first day of elementary school. He explained that as a “sneakerhead,” the first thing he looks at is the shoes someone is wearing. He currently has more than 100 pairs of sneakers valued at more than $30,000.
“My father spent time in jail, so I didn’t have any father figures around other than my uncles,” Quarles said. “They all had the newest and flyest sneakers and I wanted to be just like them. My grandmother is also well connected at all the local sneaker stores. Sometimes, she would even go out and camp in front of stores before they would open to ensure I got my pair.”
Similar to Simmonds, Quarles’ graduation shoot started a viral conversation on Twitter. For Quarles’ second look, he sat on a sign that greets visitors, students and alumni as they turn on to FAMU Way. In the picture he is holding six of his favorite pairs of shoes valued at $5,400 and wearing the Air Fear of God 1 Orange Pulse created by FAMU alumnus Jerry Lorenzo.
Quarles explained when he posted the picture that he only had 400 followers on Twitter. After posting it, he attracted more than 1,000 new followers. He explained he could not use his phone for a few days because it continued to freeze from Twitter notifications, calls and texts from family and friends. The post received 3,142 retweets and 34,567 likes.
Because of the high demand for graduation pictures, Morgan State University partnered with Photo Magic Media to ensure every student who wanted to document their achievement in a grand way got the opportunity.
Cayla Sweazie, a multimedia journalism senior at MSU and Andscape Rhoden Fellow, jumped on the opportunity. She signed up to do two looks in the studio. Her first look incorporated a T-shirt from the company Sportsimist, which creates clothes that help support women in sports and combines ideals of being a feminist. Sweazie budgeted $300 for the shoot and did her own hair and makeup because she wanted to keep the focus on the purpose of the shoot and message on her shirt.
Sweazie’s shirt reads, “I am a black woman who works in sports, to inspire other black women to work in sports.”
“The message on the shirt is what I have tried to fulfill my entire time at Morgan,” Sweazie said. “When I knew wanted to pursue a career in sports, I knew there were not a lot of girls that look like me. I take pride is being that to someone else.”
Derrick Young wanted to use his graduation shoot as an opportunity to show how he is still fulfilling his grandfather’s legacy. He is a political science senior with an economics minor studying at Howard University.
His grandfather’s pride and joy were his grandsons. In his will, he requested that each of his grandsons have custom suits made. In Young’s first graduation look, he wears the $1,200 custom handmade three-piece suit and holds his grandfather’s books from 1963.
“The suit is very close to my heart,” Young said. “Instead of wearing a regular suit, I knew I wanted to take it up a notch and get a three-piece suit. The stole that I have is red mixed with magenta and the lining of my suit is the same color.”
HBCU graduates have created videos to accompany their pictures. Dockery wanted to execute a mini-documentary. Dockery videographer Jarvis Hough is in very high demand in the Greensboro, North Carolina, area. She described getting on his schedule as “a fight in the Hunger Games.”
The video shows Dockery when she was 2 months old; Dockery attending an N.C. A&T football game on Nov. 9, 2002; interviewing herself as a double in the N.C. A&T journalism building, Crosby Hall; on a smaller screen, showcasing her appearances on national television during the 2022 All-Star Game in Cleveland; and wraps up with Dockery showing off her stole, which displays all of her accomplishments.
“My video for me, truly solidified that N.C. A&T has always been my destiny,” she said.
The graduates also use videographers. Malachi Somerville, CEO of Visualizedbymal and senior film student at Howard University, is one of the most popular photographers for northern HBCUs.
He said that viewing a video of a FAMU graduate made him want to attend an HBCU. Somerville enrolled at FAMU in 2018. After his freshman year, he transferred to Howard.
While at FAMU, Somerville observed graduation season and shadowed many photographers as they worked with their graduating clients.
“I think the reason why HBCU graduation pictures are executed so well is because they are taken by other students or HBCU alumni,” Somerville said. “It is easy to help someone execute if you’re living in the same vision or have been there and done that. It makes me happy to see that students trust their fellow peers to bring everything together.”
Because of Somerville’s success during graduation season, he has been able to fulfill one of his wildest dreams: buying a studio in Philadelphia. He said his clients take their ideas and creativity seriously; a graduate told him she wanted to book him but that he must sign a nondisclosure form before she revealed her idea. He now does simpler shoots focusing on the achievement and bringing out the details of the outfits and campuses.
“I know if I cannot do anything else, I know how to make Black beauty look good,” Somerville said.
The most popular photographer is the creator of Ttsenre, FAMU alum Ernest Pierre. His graduation portraits have received millions of social media retweets and likes. Other photographers said that most of their clients bring Pierre’s pictures to them as a way to generate a concept.
Ttsenre is based in Tallahassee, Florida, but will be relocating to Houston. Because of his growing popularity, he has clients at schools such as the University of Florida, Florida State University, University of Central Florida and Florida Atlantic University. This year he will expand to North Carolina, where he has four N.C. A&T graduates.
He first picked up a camera in middle school but did not begin to take photography seriously until 2018. From 2018 to 2020, he began to shoot birthdays and maternity announcements. In 2020, he began to get inquires about graduation photos. In just under two years, he has become the most popular HBCU graduation photographer and has more than 100 clients each season.
Ttsenre has allowed Pierre to quit his job with the Florida government. He said he earns a six-figure income from his business. To fulfill the lavish needs of his graduates, he has equipment valued at more than $6,000. Before shoots, he asks his clients to make mood boards to help everything come to life. Pierre said most of his clients hire a creative director during the developmental stages of the shoot.
“Being able to not have to work for anyone is a feeling that I can’t replace,” Pierre said. “Instead of being down about having to go to work, I get to create memories with others. I never expected any of this. I am sometimes in disbelief at the number of people who trust me with this large milestone.”