These Student Photographers Are Offering Free Senior Portraits
Yorktown seniors Donté Allen and Audrey Tong are putting their talents to good use during the pandemic.
Arlington Public Schools students are stuck at home. They’re taking classes online from couches, doing homework in sweatpants and socializing through screens.
Distance learning challenges aside, students have had to reckon with lost sports seasons, school concerts, plays and dances. The pandemic that began last spring continues to rob them of the experiences and memories that usually fill the pages of school yearbooks.
But Yorktown seniors Donté Allen and Audrey Tong have decided to view the situation as more challenge than setback. Together, the AP Photography students want to make sure their fellow members of the Class of 2021 end up with senior portraits that celebrate their time in high school.
With the start of the 2020-21 school year, Allen and Tong launched NOVA PORTRAITS, a personal project with a goal of photographing as many APS seniors as they can before graduation. They were inspired by local photographer Matt Mendelsohn, who photographed more than 400 graduating seniors in a groundbreaking project, Not Forgotten: The Yorktown Seniors of 2020, at the end of the last academic year.
“We want to show appreciation for as many people as possible and to give them the attention they deserve, because we don’t have a senior year that will be normal,” Allen says. “Finishing the year out strong is the number one goal, in addition to staying positive in these rough times.”
From now through May, Allen and Tong plan to offer free portrait sessions to seniors from all APS high schools. Interested participants can check out the duo’s sample portraits on their Instagram feed and book appointments through the NOVA PORTRAITS website.
They are taking the necessary Covid safety precautions. Both photographers wear masks at all times, and all shoots are staged outdoors. Seniors are responsible for getting their own ride to and from a shoot location, and subjects must wear a mask when they are not being photographed.
Tong and Allen have been taking photography since sophomore year, and both have aspirations that extend beyond college. Allen hopes to become a professional sports photographer. Tong dreams of one day shooting for National Geographic or Patagonia.
Allen Beland, who teaches AP Photography at Yorktown, says the duo’s ambitious project fills a void at a time when students are isolated from each other. It’s an opportunity for connection—specifically between peers.
“This project is student-to-student,” Beland says, “which means that [the students being photographed] will be and can be more relaxed around Donté and Audrey. You will get a more authentic representation of the student.”
In the end, Beland says, the project will also capture an unprecedented period in our nation’s history.
“At the very least, this portrait will be a historical document,” he says. “That is what yearbooks and photos are—a slice of your own personal history. These are images from the pandemic. It is now not only a personal, but a global historical document.”
Through personalized portrait sessions, Allen and Tong say they hope to motivate and uplift their classmates by showing them they are not alone. “I want to see our Instagram and website flooded with pictures of seniors that are all coming from different cultural backgrounds and ethnicities,” Allen says.
Tong agrees. “I think a sense of community in these times is important,” she says. “It gives people hope.”
For the two students behind the camera, the NOVA PORTRAITS project may also prove to be a valuable learning experience.
“Patience is key,” Allen says. “[This project] gives me this feeling that I am growing as a person. [It’s] like a slow start to starting your own business. When you gain experience like this when you are young, it will help you in the future when you want to start something else.”
Some day the pandemic will be over. And a brighter future lies ahead.
Fiona L.Q. Flaherty is a sophomore journalism student at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She is also a sustainability minor and a Barrett, the Honors College scholar. An avid writer, hiker, biker and native Arlingtonian, Flaherty graduated from Yorktown High School in 2019. She is currently studying and working from home in Arlington.