The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An inspired photographer, a disrupted senior class and 500 portraits that capture what they lost

Matt Mendelsohn, former photojournalist and professional photographer, directs a photo subject during a shoot of a Yorktown High School graduating senior in Arlington, Va. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

“The bag, yes. Hold that.” The photographer shouts directions through his face mask, across the lawn, telling the 17-year-old to sling the bag of soccer balls over her shoulder as he focuses tight with the long lens he has to use now.

The team soccer balls were still in the trunk of Allie Strazzella’s car after the last practice, frozen in time when Yorktown High School shut down last month and four years of training, practices, games, heartbreak, triumph, state championships and road trips abruptly ended amid a pandemic.

Allie held the unkicked balls in front of her Arlington, Va., house Tuesday morning, posing for her senior high school portrait.

Her new one.

Sure, America’s Class of 2020 all took their senior portraits at the start of their final year of high school — glam, smiling, felt-like-a-thousand-years-ago formal photos that cost a fortune and captured kids who no longer exist.

Photographer Matt Mendelsohn saw this when he took pictures of his high school junior daughter in the spring fling dress that would never go to a dance.

“And it was kind of melancholy,” he said, struck by the sadness he saw in an otherwise beautiful picture of his daughter.

Graduates from the Class of 2020 shared how they're coping after the coronavirus outbreak brought senior year to an abrupt ending. (Video: The Washington Post)

For high school seniors, coronavirus brings a sad ending and unexpected lessons

That feeling ultimately led him on a gonzo mission to take a new set of portraits for all the seniors at his daughter’s school.

The power in the images he’s making of 500 Yorktown students isn’t what the subjects are doing in them. It’s the vivid reminder of what they’re not doing.

“There’s a sense of loss in them,” Mendelsohn said, as he unpacked his mobile studio on a suburban street for the first of 10 sessions he had scheduled that day.

“This isn’t the girl in the tall grass, the girl in tulips. I’m not asking them to come dressed in their soccer uniform,” he said. “Come dressed in your street clothes. And bring a piece of gear that you’re not using. The water bottle. The headgear.”

Mendelsohn is a Washington photojournalist with all the bona fides — a remarkable 35-year career covering campaigns and wars, football games and the red carpet. He’s now a high-end portrait artist with his own studio. You’re a big deal in the District if Mendelsohn shoots your wedding.

But like a lot of folks, he’s been barely working during the pandemic. He’s bored, and he has insomnia. He went to sleep the night he made those quietly sad photos of his daughter thinking of all the things these high school kids won’t do this year.

When he woke up in the middle of the night, an idea hit him. Like me, he’d been annoyed by people posting their own, decades-ago senior portraits on Facebook, allegedly in support of the Class of 2020. It’s really just a humble-braggy, all-about-me way to show everyone how skinny you were back then. How does that celebrate this year’s seniors?

Americans are being asked to sacrifice. Have we forgotten how?

But what if Mendelsohn made senior portraits of the kids now, in quarantine, stuck with their parents and annoying little brothers, looking forward to their futures, but not celebrating their pasts?

So he called some parents last week and launched his campaign.

“Not smiling. Not brooding. Just, earnest, Theo,” Mendelsohn explained, crouched in the driveway, as Theo Lezla, 18, posed for his new senior portrait. His real one.

The son of a French chef who owns a beloved Capitol Hill restaurant, Theo (“It’s pronounced Tay-oh, the French way,” he tells Mendelsohn), makes perfect eclairs, works out, loves street fashion and plans to study mechanical engineering at George Mason University next year. He’s wearing a low-high black-and-white outfit, and he doesn’t need to be asked twice not to smile.

Just a week into the project, Mendelsohn is on a tear, zipping from home to home in Arlington, unpacking his canvas backdrop, working with a mask, gloves and a long lens, staying far enough away, but getting close enough, emotionally, to capture the essence of each kid. He’s shot 70 photos so far — and the number climbs every day.

“Some of these kids are so passionate, so dedicated. I see this when I read up on them,” he said. “It’s like documentary photography meets speed dating.”

He’s got the kid who was born on 9/11 and wants to be the first U.S. president with cerebral palsy; the girl adopted from Ethiopia when she was 7 years old who is deaf, and they had a hard time when his face mask prevented her from reading his lips; there’s the chess player, the actor, the dancer.

One of the students volunteered to help him with scheduling, and they have a spreadsheet to sign up for time slots. He’s not charging for them, and he’s not putting any restrictions on what the families can do with the images. It’s a journalistic project for the photographer.

“I’m having the most fun I’ve had in 20 years,” he said, pulling his face mask down a little bit to grin.

Mendelsohn is a journalist, researching the kids online and calling them the night before for a little interview to understand each of them as individuals.

In some cases, he’s introducing the kids to each other just as they’re about to say farewell.

He hears things like: “I knew Cam rowed crew, but I never knew he was an Eagle Scout.”

The photos are wildly popular, as the students and now other photographers are beginning to follow the project — “Not Forgotten: The Yorktown Seniors of 2020.”

“We look at them every day! Everybody loves getting them done!” said Allie, as soon as Mendelsohn pulled up to her home and began setting up. She had to yell across the lawn as they kept a safe distance apart. “It’s meant a lot to the people of my grade!”

Her mom, Kara Strazzella, walks out to the center of their lawn to place a Yorktown Soccer T-shirt as an offering to Mendelsohn. “It’s just a small thank-you.”

He has mom and dad hold the canvas backdrop, promising their sweats and undone hair won’t be in the shot.

It’s the same backdrop he uses for all the portraits, for continuity, and they’re all in black and white. They are complicated, earnest and melancholy, joyful and genuine. They are beautiful.

“It’s not 500 individual portraits,” he said. “It’s 500 pieces of a puzzle.”

Allie and the other kids tell Mendelsohn how much it means to them that he’s doing this, giving them permission to feel special and to celebrate and also to be sad.

“It feels like we don’t have closure,” Allie said. “It’s like we’re grieving our senior year a little. Like we lost a rite of passage. . . . And I know people are dying, the health-care workers are out there every day, the economy. . . . It’s a push and pull of emotion. There’s a level of awareness with us of what’s going on in the world that maybe we wouldn’t have if things were different, normal.”

She stands with the soccer balls that get kicked to no one.

A baseball player sits in a chair, holding the ball that no player is around to catch. The trumpet player’s horn is in his lap. The swimmer’s goggles are on a dry head of hair. The dance team boots aren’t on her feet. The guitar is played for no one.

But there are also college sweatshirts and bright eyes. And some of the gazes in this giant portrait of 500 kids, 500 stories, 500 disappointments and 500 triumphs are aimed out into the distance, into the future.

Twitter: @petulad

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