Behind THE PHOTO

If you read as much higher education news as Wonkhe staff do, you start seeing the same things again and again.

No, we don’t mean the copy-and-paste grade inflation pieces, the moral panics over unconditional offers, the Cambridge May Day photo specials, or even the “generational funding settlements” (two so far this decade). We mean something else.

A sunny day in 2008, three female graduates in the Bachelor of Science regalia of the University of Portsmouth…

THE PHOTO.

How it happened

The photographer behind the shot that saved a million busy picture editors is Chris Ison. He’s a professional photographer covering the south coast – roughly Dorset, Hampshire and Sussex. He currently sources his own assignments – which could include news, sports, features, weather, and politics – both for particular stories or purposes, or just as stock photography.

At the time of THE PHOTO he was working for the Press Association. In his own words:

I was aware that the University of Portsmouth held their graduations in the Guildhall, and that afterwards many graduates would come out to Guildhall Square for their own photos with friends and families – often throwing their caps in the air. Graduation ceremonies run two or three times a day over the course of about a week so I put the dates in my diary and made the visit fit in around other assignments. At the time, I was living just a short walk from Guildhall Square, so I had good local knowledge.

On that auspicious day, he would have shot a couple of hundred images, editing just over 20 for further use. What he was looking to do was to create what the industry calls a “standalone” image:

a striking picture that a newspaper can use without a full story, usually only a couple of sentences of caption as explanation. I knew if I didn’t manage to create a standalone, I would at least get some good stock shots, and when I was Press Association staff, we would make a (very) small commission on stock images that were sold.

In the moment

For such a momentous and life changing image, it seemed likely that Chris would remember the circumstances. And he did not disappoint:

I remember shooting the image. It was later on during the hour or so I was there. I had shot the best of it, big groups throwing caps in the air, hugs, champagne corks. I was standing on the grand sweeping steps of the Guildhall, assessing the last of festivities, and saw these friends exactly as they appear in the image. I shot a couple of frames and moved on to something else.

I knew it was a useful image because the subjects were all anonymous – so it could be used anywhere without needing their permission. But at the same time, the high-viz jacket on the distant security person killed it a bit as it drew the eye from the subject.

I didn’t know the people in the picture and I didn’t speak to them. The whole event occurs in a public place. They are simply a few of the graduates. I have often wondered if I’m in the background of the photo that they’re really posing for, and in an album or on a shelf somewhere!

Before Chris mentioned the high-viz jacket I hadn’t spotted it. Now I can’t see anything else. THE PHOTO is ruined for me, for ever.

The life of THE PHOTO

But a lot of picture editors have overlooked this glaring issue. Barely a week goes by without at least one major paper using THE PHOTO to illustrate, well, pretty much any story that involves universities or students. Why does it keep turning up? I asked the man who took the picture.

I have no idea how much it gets used but I think I know why – lazy sub-editing. Once a picture has been used, many picture desks will keep it on file rather than deleting. That way, the likelihood of a re-use increases. It may also be the case that PA has done the same and pull it out as their generic ‘university’ photo. One would think they would update their library eventually and get one of their staff photographers to shoot a new set.

More than ten years later, THE PHOTO shows no sign of receding into history. Despite the knowing tweets from the HE news superfans, despite the occasional confusion as to what precisely three delighted graduates on Guildhall Square have to do with grade inflation, it’s a pleasing and attractive image that will persist for a good few years yet.

Chris Ison later did a few projects for the University of Portsmouth, including a couple of graduation shoots, after he went freelance in 2014 (he assures me THE PHOTO has nothing to do with it). But how does Portsmouth feel about this unexpected fame? A university spokesperson told me:

While it has been nice that the University of Portsmouth has been the face of higher education media stories for the past decade, it seems to be a good time for news agencies and media outlets to use a wider range of photos that better reflect today’s higher education institutions.”

Quite.

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