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Student photographers talk grad shoots in wake of Lincoln Memorial construction

Jordan Tovin | Assistant Photo Editor
A student photographer takes a graduating student’s portrait at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool.

Alexandria Manousos had been looking forward to living and learning near monumental locales in D.C. and at GW since she first toured the school.

Manousos, who is now a senior studying psychological and brain sciences, said she started mentally planning out her grad photos at major D.C. and GW landmarks, like the National Mall and Kogan Plaza, as soon as she arrived on campus for her freshman year. But with ongoing construction at the Lincoln Memorial and GW’s administration’s decision to close central campus sites through graduation, Manousos’ photographed fantasies were seemingly not meant to be.

“I knew I wanted to go to iconic spots that I could go back and think of so many different memories,” she said.

The change hasn’t only affected graduates, the subject of photographs — student photographers who hustle from sunrise to sunset taking grad photos throughout the spring semester have had to find new commencement-worthy backdrops this year. Between finding new locations, rising at dawn for good shots and adapting to a surprising amount of champagne catastrophes, student photographers have to navigate the trials and tribulations of the 2024 grad season with the same precision they bring to their craft

Kate Carpenter, a GW class of 2023 graduate pursuing her master’s degree in higher education leadership and policy at the University of Texas at Austin, said she started taking grad photos in high school and brought her business to GW in 2021. She said she decided to return to D.C. this year to take graduation photos because of her many close friends in the class of 2024.

“I’m so thankful for the people that I met during my undergraduate career, so I was really excited to come back and celebrate their monumental achievement through grad photos,” she said.

Carpenter said the tradition for GW students since she started taking photos has been to pose in front of the Lincoln Memorial with the reflecting pool behind them, with Kogan Plaza as a secondary option. She said graduates from GW also have a particular eagerness to pop champagne in their photos, but the National Mall isn’t always accommodating to such celebrations.

“You should not, cannot, never pop champagne on the monuments,” she said. “That is the number one thing because not only does it disrespect the monuments and the places that we’re taking photos, but it makes things sticky, makes things wet, it looks bad in photos, it smells horrible.”

She said this year, with both the Lincoln and Kogan closed, most of her clients have moved their National Mall photo shoots to the Jefferson Memorial, a 20 minute walk away. Carpenter said she decided to halt all on-campus photo shoots to avoid distracting from the ongoing demonstrations.

Grad photos at the Jefferson Memorial. (Courtesy of Joseph Decilos)

Carpenter said the Jefferson is less swarmed with other visitors compared to the reflecting pool populated by college grads and “thousands of high schoolers.” She said on one particularly busy day last May, it seemed as though every graduate in the D.C. area had decided to go to the Lincoln to take their photos, making posing almost impossible.

“It was really and truly a horror story for me because I had seven sessions booked in that one day,” she said.

Carpenter said situations like that, even if they’re less common this year with the Lincoln shut down, can make the student photography grind difficult, especially when rising at the crack of dawn to fit in studying for finals. But she said despite such challenges, it makes her happy to see how many intrepid young photographers are down at the mall day in and day out.

“I’m really proud of GW students I see around, really trying and taking great photos,” she said.

Joseph Decilos, a senior majoring in journalism and photojournalism, shares the rise-and-grind philosophy of student photography.

“I think it’s all about respect as photographers like we’re all up there at 6 a.m.,” he said. “I see classmates, they’re frequently doing the same thing that I’m doing.”

Decilos said not being able to take photos in front of the Lincoln’s columns with the “certain aesthetic” so many GW grads imagine has helped photographers’ professional development. He said while many graduates have just pivoted to using the Jefferson Memorial amid their disappointment, others have branched out to studios or other D.C. sites like the Botanical Gardens.

Studio grad photos. (Courtesy of Joseph Decilos)

Decilos said his work with graduates each May gives him a chance not just to get some cash but also to develop his portraiture craft. He said his clients have allowed him to get more creative with their photos and go beyond the copy-and-paste “Pinterest board” aesthetic of graduates fake candidly posing in front of Lincoln Memorial pillars that dominates the season.

“It’s really fun seeing how people are getting creative with it and sort of putting their own twist,” he said.

Nancy Kiner, a junior majoring in photojournalism and American Studies, said her first grad photoshoot went about as poorly as one could imagine. She said she was photographing soon-to-be graduates at the University of Pittsburgh, where she attended as a freshman, with a bottle of champagne, but when the bottle popped, things went off the rails.

“The first time I ever did a grad shoot, the champagne broke my camera,” she said.

Kiner said this year, like other photographers, many of her National Mall photoshoots have pivoted to the Jefferson. She said some people have also moved their photo ops to the Capitol — both changes which have made the backdrops of the photos less busy. 

Kiner said the most important part of grad photos isn’t whether she likes the pictures, but whether her clients like the shots she captures of one of the most pivotal times in their lives.

“It’s a very important moment for a lot of people,” she said. “You want them to be happy with their stuff. It doesn’t even really matter if I’m happy with it.”

As a senior navigating the altered landscape of graduate photo shoots around Foggy Bottom, Manousos said she found a new spot to take her grad photos: Carvings, the late-night eatery on campus that fueled everything from her studying to her cry sessions. She said she still posed for some photos at the reflecting pool, but she liked perching in front of a camera on the Carvings couch with an iced vanilla latte because it was more authentic to her GW experience.

“No one really spends that much time at the Lincoln Memorial,” she said. “So that was important to me to be genuine in where I was taking my pictures.”

Alexandria Manousos poses for her grad photos at Carvings. (Jordyn Bailer | Assistant Photo Editor)

Manousos said she wanted her photographer to have ties to GW as well. She said she considered hiring a professional photographer but decided to ask one of her best friends to take her photos instead because she wanted to cap off her college experience at GW by supporting student photography.

“What’s perfect to me is to be able to kind of mix together another great lasting memory of having my best friend and another student be my photographer and get great photos,” she said.

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