Yorktown senior Caro Lipsitz earned a Black Belt in Taekwondo amid the pandemic. Photo by Matt Mendelsohn.
Last year, Matt Mendelsohn photographed 401 graduating seniors at Yorktown High School in Arlington. The visual storytelling project, Not Forgotten: The Yorktown Seniors of 2020, captured myriad faces of high school careers cut short by a killer virus that sent the world into lockdown.
Now, with roughly six weeks to graduation, he’s at it again, offering free senior portraits to any member of the Class of 2021 who wants one.
“This time it’s personal. I have a senior,” says the Arlington dad, whose daughter, Alexandra, will cross the stage on June 18 and head to William & Mary this fall. “But it’s more than that. I want to give these kids some recognition. Also, I keep thinking of this project as a sort of time capsule to be found in 100 years—a little slice of what life was like during the pandemic. No one was blogging in 1918. This time we have a record.”
When history strikes, Mendelsohn picks up his camera. Formerly a photographer for United Press International and USA Today, he has documented events ranging from the Gulf War and the Rodney King beating trial to Barack Obama’s 2008 election. He sees this moment in time as no less significant.
So far he’s taken about 30 portraits for the new series, A Lost Year: The Yorktown Seniors of 2021, many of them outside a local synagogue that kindly offered its parking lot as a shoot location. The photos are free, but “the price of admission is you’ve gotta write me a little essay,” he tells each student, “and you can’t phone it in. You have to reflect on what has been a lost year.”
Their responses to that simple prompt, he says, have left him floored, and at times humbled. Like the one from Nilah Williamson, who has dreamed of being a pilot in the U.S. military since she was 11. Not one to waste her time during the pandemic, she decided to go ahead and get her pilot’s license. She was recently accepted to the U.S. Naval Academy.
“As soon as Covid-19 hit last year, I made it a goal to make sure I came out of quarantine a better, stronger person,” says Nilah Williamson. “I didn’t want the life-changing events to hold me back from the path I had worked so hard to get on, so I decided that I wanted to use the extra free time to get my pilot’s license. I changed my mindset and decided to see the circumstances as an opportunity to grow and achieve great things so I quite literally, reached for the sky.”
Then there’s Daniel Strickland, an actor, improv performer and stand-up bass player who used his time in quarantine to write a novella and the scripts for two role-playing games. He’s now writing a play for an upcoming one-man show. He says he feels most alive when he’s on stage. This year’s lack of an audience left a void akin to grief. “In any performing art, there is no greater sensation than the stressful moment before you arrive on stage,” he muses, “knowing that those who love you (and those that barely know you) have gathered to see you pour your heart into something.”
“The thing I truly lost this year was performance,” says Daniel Strickland. “I’ve done a lot of performance art over my four years at Yorktown—singing, theater, improv and music. But this year deprived all us performers of our captive audiences.”
“It’s fascinating. You shake a tree and you get these amazing truths,” Mendelsohn says. “You ask a universal question and they come back with these beautiful essays about loss…and in some cases about found.”
“I’ve always found solitude in art,” says Morgan Dailey, “as if I enter an alternate reality where the world spins and clocks tick; but to that I pay no attention. My [ceramics] teacher offered me a wheel, clay, and various tools the weeks before school started, and I took her up on that offer. My time spent in Covid has taught me many things, but my three favorite are: 1) The world works in mysterious ways, 2) Tough times pass, 3) Sacrifices now mean success later.”
The portraits are intended a gift to students who spent their last year of high school largely stuck inside, staring at laptop screens. But Mendelsohn says the benefits go both ways. With each mini shoot (they last only a few minutes) he gains new perspective about humanity and resilience—and sometimes a new band he should listen to, or a novel to read.
“What do you do when time stands still?” asks Matthew Kress. “[At first] I was excited because I felt like I was free to do whatever I desired—to practice guitar, to listen to music, to teach myself to juggle. But as the days went on, I became entrapped by a perplexing ordeal. There seemed to be a lacking purpose in my actions. What was the point in learning anything when you’re unable to share these things with others? The minutes piled on into hours, into weeks. Every day felt the same.”
“What do I get out of this? I get to do what I do best,” Mendelsohn says. “Everyone has a talent in life. My talent has always been photography, with a minor in schmoozing. I get to do both of the things I’m good at. And these kids get to be remembered for the amazing things they did. I feel like they need some celebration again.”
Below are a few more portraits and essay excerpts from A Lost Year: The Yorktown Seniors of 2021. The series is a work in progress. Students and families interested in scheduling a senior portrait can reach the photographer through his Instagram account @photomat22.
“Time. It’s what I lost and what I gained,” says Rylei Porter. “I try not to focus on that, but rather, what good came from this past year. We may have lost our senior year, but many of us found our true identities through the journey we’ve taken. Writing music helped calm me and to make sense of the confusing world we live in. During quarantine I poured heart into my songbook, resulting in more than 50 complete songs in just a few months. I believe music heals, and everyone deserves it in their lives.”
“I have played baseball since the age of five, and love everything about the game,” writes Ryan Upton. “I don’t know what my future holds, but I have always thought I would make a great government agent, as I am quiet and shy. People barely notice I am around, which has actually served me well during the pandemic. As an introvert, I am content sitting at home watching sports or playing video games. I wouldn’t have gone to the prom or on the boat trip, as I get overwhelmed in crowds. For the first time in my life, it’s good to be a quiet introvert.”
“Everything I do is to connect with people, but for over a year so much opportunity for connection has been taken away,” says Ellis Mucchetti. “And so I wonder — what friends will I never make? What mentors and role models will I never meet? What lifelong memories were replaced with just another day at home, turning in assignments online? What broken past friendships might I have been able to repair, given another year? Next year, I’m going to the largest university I applied to, partly because I want a chance to make up for all those lost relationships. But I know I never will be able to make up for them. This year will always be a bitter void of what might have been.”
“For most of the 11 years I’ve played ice hockey, I’ve gotten dressed in a locker room,” says Rachel Clark. “You know, inside. But for the past year, try the back of a car in a parking lot in a snowstorm. A lot of things that I was looking forward to got canceled, but I learned to deal with disappointment this year. This will allow me to appreciate things more in the future and be more resilient.”
“From a young age, ballet established in my mind an illusory target for success: perfection,” says Charlotte Davis, “and over time it began to suffocate me. I saw quarantine as the perfect escape from this lifestyle. I completely quit for the first time in my life, and I was able to live each day without the identity which had defined, and arguably held me back, for so long. It was a breath of fresh air, and despite the losses this year has brought, I’ve really grown into myself.”
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