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Intimate Portraits Capture Loss, Hopes of 2020's Senior Class

Photographer Matt Mendelsohn captures images of graduating high school senior Gracen Flores.

The pandemic has put lives of students on hold, especially high school graduates who are unable to celebrate the completion of their secondary education with the traditional senior dance — the prom — and the graduation ceremony.

To save the day, award winning photographer Matt Mendelsohn volunteered to photograph each one of the 500 seniors of Yorktown High school in Arlington, Virginia, his neighborhood high school. Each portrait encapsulates the graduate’s talents, hopes and aspirations.

Mendelsohn, a 35-year veteran photographer, has chronicled wars, the Rodney King beating by Los Angeles police officers, the Academy Awards and boxing title fights, among others.

Intimate Portraits Capture Loss, Hopes of 2020's Senior Class
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So, it seems surprising that he would take time to photograph each and every one of the seniors of Yorktown high school, free of charge, to mark the end of their secondary education. But when he saw the sadness in his daughter’s eyes, an 11th-grader at Yorktown high who would be missing out on the yearly school dance in her new dress, he realized how much greater the loss of the school year was, for high school seniors.

Capturing loss and hopes

“When we first started the project, I was trying to capture a bit of lost baseball season, the lost swimming season, the lost graduation, the lost chemistry awards. People say ‘Oh, it’s just the prom.’ It's not the prom. It's four months. The last four months of your senior year. It's sort of the culmination of 10 years of school,” Mendelsohn said.

But soon, the project morphed from depicting loss to capturing the students’ hopes and aspirations. Many chose to be photographed with beloved objects that encapsulate who they are.

Jonathan Saldana, an aspiring astronomer is showcased with the telescope he built himself.

High school senior Jonathan Saldana poses for a portrait by photographer Matt Mendelsohn.
High school senior Jonathan Saldana poses for a portrait by photographer Matt Mendelsohn.

Jonathan has been accepted at the honors program of George Mason University. But, like everyone else, he does not know if the school will open next fall and the prospect of starting his college life with online classes does not excite him.

“It’s a little harder to stay focused… there is just less motivation, and it’s more than that,” he said. “On-campus life won’t be there, the excitement of being in an environment that is conducive to student life. Yeah, that experience.”

Not experiencing college life and in-class instruction weighs heavily on Galilee Ambellu, an aspiring chemistry student at North Carolina Chapel Hill.

“If they do make the first semester online, I'll probably defer until the spring semester. Not to be dramatic, I just know that this is the foundation of my college career,” Galilee said. “And if I don't learn Chem 101 and Bio 101 correctly, I’m not going to be successful on the higher-level sciences.

“So, I think from a logical standpoint, I would probably take the time off,” she said.

As for the last four months of her senior year?

“It was kind of devastating because I worked so hard,” she said.

An introvert by nature, it took a bit of convincing by classmates to agree to have her picture taken. Now, she is glad she did it. She smiles broadly holding her chemistry vials up for the picture.

High school senior Galilee Ambellu photographed by Matt Mendelson.
High school senior Galilee Ambellu photographed by Matt Mendelson.

“I'm not going to have many seniorlike memories. So, this would be like a good memory that I could show my kids and would be like forever ingrained in my mind,” Galilee said.

Rowan Jones, a prospective history and philosophy student at the Shanghai branch of New York University, is more stoic about the tentative start of his college life.

“Since I was going to Shanghai, I knew that it was definitely a possibility that I wouldn't be able to go to school just because China was the first place to get hit by coronavirus,” he said.

If schools do not open due to the pandemic, Rowan said he plans on taking online instruction in the fall. “It’s good to be productive,” he says.

He is calm and introspective regarding the stay-at-home orders brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.

“For the past couple of weeks that I was sort of like a caged animal, I needed to go, I needed to go anywhere. It didn't matter where, but I am sort of at peace with it now. I think that it's one of those things where, again it just gives you time to reflect and do all the things that you wouldn't normally have been able to,” he said.

High school senior Rowan Jones photographed by Matt Mendelsohn.
High school senior Rowan Jones photographed by Matt Mendelsohn.

He loves building miniature figurines of fantastical creatures and machines, a lot of detail and care goes into them. “For me, this time has been a time of reflection and sort of, I don’t know… peace. It’s just been nice to sort of stop and listen and just for everything to sort of slow down,” Rowan said.

Though he is disappointed not to experience senior prom, he finds Mendelsohn’s shoot a more intimate tribute to Yorktown’s seniors than a graduation ceremony.

“I love the idea behind the shoot, a personal sense of validation or accomplishment as opposed to just being another person out of 500,” he said.

Gracen Flores rests against an old magnolia tree for the shoot. Her arm leans against an old typewriter. Surrounded by books, she is a vision to behold in Mendelsohn’s portrait.

Photo of high school senior Gracen Flores by Matt Mendelsohn.
Photo of high school senior Gracen Flores by Matt Mendelsohn.

“I'm going to be a dual degree for elementary education and early childhood education, so I'll be able to teach from kindergarten all the way to sixth grade. And I'd love to have a book published one day,” she said. A poetry writer, she laments her lost internship this summer.

“I was going to be shadowing an ASL interpreter because that's something that I'm passionate about and I wasn't able to,” Gracen said.

For her photos, she chose to wear a white lace dress. She had been saving it for four years to wear on graduation day.

“Someone told me that during graduation, people wear white. So, I was like, oh, save this dress for graduation. And then unfortunately, I wasn't able to. So, I figured this would be the perfect time to wear it,” Gracen said.

She is thankful for Mendelsohn’s photo project.

“It felt really great to see that we were not completely forgotten and that we were still being remembered and had a way of showing how we are feeling,” she says.

Anything but forgotten

Yorktown high school seniors are anything but forgotten. Mendelsohn said his pictures have gone viral the world over.

“We have been on the evening news and ‘The Today Show’ and The Washington Post. “Now, I’m getting emails from Sydney, Australia, saying good luck to the seniors of Yorktown High School. We're thinking about you… from Sydney Australia,” he said incredulously.

"I mean, it's gotten crazy. It's just a project that was meant to boost the spirits of the senior class, who like a lot of other senior classes around America, they're all the same, they're all very smart. They're all very passionate and they all had a chunk of their senior year just evaporate.”