Picture this. Submit your own yearbook photo

Thursday, June 19, 2003

Star-Ledger Staff

Having a good yearbook picture meant so much to Frank Belluscio that he had his braces temporarily removed just for picture day at Roselle Catholic High School.

It wasn't worth the pain.

"It came out horrible," said the Class of 1970 graduate who is now spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association. "I had a second one taken later and it came out fine -- but with the braces back on."

Photographers -- and students -- often go to great lengths to capture that perfect picture that will last a lifetime. But sometimes, like in Belluscio's case, the effort produces a resounding "Ugh!"

Now, as the Class of 2003 pours through their newly unveiled yearbooks, some state legislators want to give students a chance to submit their own photos.

A bill authored by Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D-Camden) and picked up by state Sens. Anthony Bucco (R-Morris) and Walter Kavanaugh (R-Somerset) would let high school students take their own pictures or hire their own photographers, as long as the submissions meet their high schools' yearbook requirements and deadlines.

"If you took a look back now at your yearbook pictures, you'd say, 'God, what happened?'" said Greenwald, whose photo is featured in the 1985 Cherry Hill East High School yearbook. "You might have taken the picture after a gym class or on a bad hair day. And you live with it forever. No one likes them."

Take the case of Point Pleasant Beach High School alumnus Bob Martin, who wishes all the 1965 yearbooks featuring his picture would just disappear.

"I asked if they could do it (the photo) again and they said, 'No.' So, I've had to live with it all these years," said Martin, now a Republican state senator from Morris County. "I was named to the school hall of fame a few years ago, and my photo recirculated again. It won't go away."

Under the proposed legislation -- which Martin's Senate Education Committee cleared last week -- schools would be required to amend their policies to allow for the use of outside photos.

"I know from past experience with my own son and grandchildren what can happen," said Bucco, a 1956 graduate of Manual Training High School in New York who says he actually likes his yearbook photo. "You get the kids all dressed up, get their hair cut and combed, and then you get a picture you don't like. Maybe you smirked instead of smiled."

Martin said his committee approved the measure only after conferring with educators to ensure it would not cause administrative headaches. The bill is now before the full Senate, but there is no indication when debate or a vote would be held.

Belluscio said the School Boards Association backed the measure after determining it would not pose added financial costs for schools, which still would control the yearbook process.

"It would provide for school procedural control, but give students an option. That sounds good to us," he said.

Each year, school districts hire firms to take yearbook photos, with frenetic picture sessions scheduled long before winter holiday breaks. Students who are absent or don't like the results can get a second chance on retake day, their one shot at photo redemption.

A host of firms compete for the business, working out contracts that allow them to make profits by selling photo packages to students and their families, with school districts getting a 10 percent to 20 percent cut, said officials.

"We try to make sure our customers are satisfied, after all, that's how we make our money," said Jim Haeg, vice president of sales for Lifetouch, a Minnesota-based firm that shoots yearbook photos for New Jersey school districts. "But, in our business, beauty is always in the eye of the beholder."

The issue could become moot when photo companies switch to digital photography, allowing instant retakes, said Susan Harding, owner of Milan Rose of Hillsborough, one of the first to shoot digital yearbook photos. But whether using film or going digital, quality work is the key to making students happy, Harding said.

"If you do a good job, you are in the catbird seat," she said. "If not, students should be allowed to use their own photos. After all, especially for seniors, it's the culmination of years of education. They deserve a good picture."

Several high school seniors interviewed on the subject gave the bill mixed reviews. Some thought it would be nice to have a choice. Others thought it might cause the quality of photos to differ too much. But Madison High School senior Janet Yang summed up the feeling of many, saying, "Really, it's not a big issue for us."

Many educators, such as Morris County Superintendent of Schools Rene Rovtar, also were a little puzzled by the need for legislation, saying problems with yearbook photos have not been a front-burner education issue.

"To create legislation seems kind of unusual," said Rovtar, who noted that she was ill the day her 1976 Watchung Hills High School senior yearbook photo was taken.

"The picture was horrible," she said. "But I'm not sure if the pictures are particularly problematic when they are taken. It's 20 or 30 years down the road when you see it and say, 'Oh, my God.' That's when the problem may occur."

Lawrence Ragonese is a reporter in the Morris County bureau. He can be reached at lragonese@starledger.com or at (973) 539-7910.


 Click here to view NJ state law regarding school yearbook practice


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