Photo Portraits Capture Loss, Hopes of a 2020 Senior Class

22 May 2020

As with most everything else, the COVID-19 crisis hit U.S. public education hard. In most of the country, schools closed suddenly. Many schools asked teachers to continue offering their classes online. Tests and the school year were restructured, while sports and other school activities were cancelled.

It has been a difficult time for all students across the United States. But for those completing their final year of high school, the loss is sharper. No prom, their last school dance; no graduation ceremony to celebrate their success; no party to mark a major passage of life.

Photojournalist Matt Mendelsohn could see the sadness in his own daughter's eyes, and she is only an 11th grader. With luck, she will get to enjoy a public graduation ceremony and all the usual social activities in a year from now.

But her father was moved to do something for her older schoolmates, the seniors at Yorktown High School in Arlington, Virginia.

Mendelsohn volunteered to create photographic portraits in honor of every 12th grade student registered at Yorktown. He sought to produce images that capture each student's special gifts, hopes and dreams.

The project might seem an unlikely one for Mendelsohn, who spent much of his career shooting pictures of presidents, movie stars, war zones and sporting events.

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. But soon, Mendelsohn said, the project changed from a documentation of loss to one of students' hopes and dreams. Jonathan Saldana's portrait, for example, shows the student standing 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, who wants to become an astronomer, has been accepted to an honors program at a nearby university. But, like everyone else, he does not know if the school will open for fall term. And he is not excited by the possibility of beginning his college career online.

"It's just a little harder to stay focused... there is just less motivation," he said.

His classmate, Galilee Ambellu, has similar feelings. She plans to study chemistry at a university in North Carolina.

"If they do make the first semester online, I'll probably defer until the spring semester," she said. "If I don't learn Chem 101 and Bio 101 correctly, I'm not going to be successful on the higher-level sciences."

And as for the last four months of her senior year?

"It was kind of devastating because I worked so hard."

Galilee is not an attention-seeker, so it took some persuading from classmates to get her to take part in the portrait project. Now, she is happy she did it. She smiles broadly in the picture, chemistry test tubes in her hands.

"I'm not going to have many senior-like memories. So, this would be like a good memory that I could show my kids," Galilee said.

Rowan Jones, a history and philosophy student was supposed to go to Shanghai, China, later this year as a student of New York University. If schools remain closed, he says, he will take online classes. "It's good to be productive," he says.

Rowan leans on a group of books in his portrait.

Student Gracen Flores rests against an old magnolia tree for her photo shoot with Mendelsohn. She holds an old typewriter. Some books on the tree roots and grass around her.

Gracen, who writes poetry, plans to study education so she can teach in an elementary school.

"And I'd love to have a book published one day," she says.

Gracen is wearing a special dress in her portrait. She had been saving it for four years to wear on graduation day. But the public health crisis meant that day would never come.

"So," she said, "I figured this would be the perfect time to wear it."

She also expressed thanks 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 said.

Anything but forgotten

Matt Mendelsohn says the project that began as a way to lift spirits locally, has gone viral online. The senior portraits have been shared again and again around the world.

"We have been on the evening news and ‘The Today Show' and The Washington Post," he said. "Now, I'm getting emails from Sydney, Australia, saying good luck to the seniors of Yorktown High School."

Sounds as if this graduating class will be remembered for many years to come.

I'm Caty Weaver.

VOA's Penelope Poulou reported this story. Caty Weaver adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

photojournalist -n. the job or activity of using photographs to report news stories in magazines or newspapers

portrait -n. a painting, drawing, or photograph of a person that usually only includes the person's head and shoulders

focus -n. to direct your attention or effort at something specific

motivation -n. the condition of being eager to act or work : the condition of being motivated

semester -n. one of two usually 18-week periods that make up an academic year at a school or college

defer -v. to choose to do (something) at a later time

kid -n. a son or daughter