Graduation morning unfolds with moments that range from solemnity to frivolity. From every direction, seniors enter the Yard with their House-mates, some marching to the mournful sounds of bagpipes, others dancing in step to the staccato beat of a ragtime combo. After the requisite photos of the honorands are taken, the faculty members begin their slow parade through the rows of imminent graduates lining the walkways. During the exercises, the assembly clutch their programs in an effort to follow the Latin oration and laugh in all the right places, while the student speakers inspire with the sincerity of their rhetoric. In the end, the band plays, the “Harvard Hymn” is sung, and everyone marches off to respective futures (or just to lunch).
Yet beyond all the tradition, costumes, and kinetic energy of the proceedings, what has most impressed me in the 31 years I have photographed this annual rite of passage are the more than 30,000 people who attend—the wonderful tapestry of faces and emotions all gathered together for a short time in this small quadrangle, sharing a bond to Harvard—and to each other.
For despite the very public nature of Commencement, and its seemingly overwhelming scope, it is the countless private, personal moments—three young friends hugging each other and crying; a relative beaming with pride, his camera at the ready; a University president showing his surprise as a head of state breaks for a pinch of snuff—that photographs express so well. And it is these moments that give this centuries-old rite its freshness: they cut through both the momentousness and the levity to reveal the very human meaning of it all.