The last two months of your senior year in high school are supposed to be full of celebrations; from getting dressed up and going to your final prom to dawning your cap and gown as you walk across the stage to receive your diploma. On March 23, that all changed when Gov. Northam announced schools would be closed for the rest of the academic year.
Arlington photographer Matt Mendelsohn is trying to return some sense of normalcy to the senior class at Yorktown High School through his photo essay Not Forgotten: The Yorktown Seniors of 2020.
“I had this epiphany one night where I felt like they were obviously getting the short end of the stick here. At first I thought along obvious, literal terms, like no prom, no cap and gown, no graduation ceremony, no awards night,” Mendelsohn explains.
“But the more I thought about it, the more I realized they were being ignored completely by neighbors, who were otherwise occupied by quarantine, and nobody saying, ‘Hey, good luck at UVA next year.’ I just felt like they had disappeared. Like their senior year flew into the Bermuda Triangle in some way.”
From that moment, Mendelsohn was on a mission to capture the senior class of Yorktown High School, as they go through these unprecedented circumstances, before what would have been their June 15 graduation ceremony. Now, two weeks into the project, the photographer has already photographed 125 out of the 500 seniors at Yorktown.
“These pictures, I think 75% of them, are more about what has been lost. Some of them are funny, for instance I just shot a swimmer with her kickboard in her hot tub,” Mendelsohn says. “Some of them have a degree of whimsy and some of them are a baseball player who never got to play his senior year, sitting on the porch with his legs up on the rail, tossing a baseball to himself. They’re meant to evoke a sense of what might have been.”
Each 30-minute session starts off with a discussion with the senior the night before the shoot to go over any ideas the two may have, whether it is representing the student’s involvement in sports, art or any other activities. Once at a student’s house, Mendelsohn takes all of the needed safety precautions during the shoot.
“I feel like I’m a country doctor getting ready to deliver a baby with my gloves and my mask on. I pull up to the house. I honk the horn. I don’t go up to the door. The senior comes out,” he says. After that, the two work together, at a distance, to create one-of-a-kind snapshots.
If you scroll through the photographer’s Instagram profile, you will see photos of seniors in hockey gear, cars and posing with their pets, but every now and then you will see a parent getting in on the fun or peeking out from behind the backdrop.
With the weather the last two weeks being full of wind and rain and having to practice social distancing, he says, “The only people I can have by the senior is their parents. So they’ve become human background holders and it’s fantastic because the picture of the senior might be in earnest staring down the camera and the parents are beaming with pride as they hold the backdrop.”
Through this project, Mendelsohn has seen the senior class become a tighter unit. He explained that students are learning new things about each other through the descriptions posted with each picture, even though most have spent the last 12 years together at school. With all of the exposure the project has received, he has also started to see a change around the neighborhood.
“Suddenly, people are driving by, they see the backdrop, they see the senior and they are honking their horn and they are saying to the senior, ‘Good luck at college!’ It’s really fun. It sort of has restored things to their rightful place. This is supposed to be a time where your neighbors are saying good luck in college,” he says. “Now we’ve become kind of known and everybody is yelling out of their car, ‘I saw you on The Washington Post! Good luck senior!’ It really is a nice feeling.”
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