With the coronavirus pandemic putting a pause on major life moments, one photographer is making sure graduates' milestones are captured.
In Arlington, Virginia, photographer Matt Mendelsohn has made it his mission to give the senior class of Yorktown High School the celebration they deserve.
“We’re talking about senior year, you know, the culmination of your education stopped four months before it was supposed to end,” Mendelsohn, 57, who has a daughter who attended the high school, told “Good Morning America.” “Nobody got to say goodbye ... It all just came to a crashing halt.”
With the thoughts of seniors weighing heavily on his mind, Mendelsohn came up with an idea one night of what he could do to make sure they were not forgotten. He would try to photograph every high school senior at Yorktown -- all 500.
Mendelsohn was connected to five students who were interested in being photographed.
The first portrait was with a football player who wore a T-shirt and work boots and sat in an old chair with a football helmet in his hand. Next was with a teen who was posed with a trumpet to represent his time in band.
“When I looked at the picture, his eyes just sort of had that Ken Burns Civil War feel to them,” said Mendelsohn. “I thought, OK, this definitely has viability, this idea.”
As he started reaching out and met with more students, each photo represented a feeling of longing for what was lost from the last four months of their high school career. Some sad, some quirky and some whimsical.
With the growing popularity of his project, which he’s named “ Not Forgotten: The Yorktown Seniors of 2020,” he’s enlisted the help from his daughter on shoots and a parent named Suzy Wagner, who helps him get his schedule in order each day.
The process is thoughtful and Mendelsohn makes sure each student’s personality is captured in each portrait by having them fill out a questionnaire online prior to the shoot and talk by phone to get a sense of who they are before loading his car up with his camera gear and driving to the homes of each student.
While the portraits are focused on the students of Yorktown, Mendelsohn feels that they represent high school seniors all across the country and what’s been lost: baseball season, the swim meets and science fairs.
But the project also reflects who each student is and what’s shaped each of them over the past four years of high school.
“I’ve learned that they’re far more passionate, far smarter, far more together than I ever was when I was a senior in 1979,” he said.
“I feel like it’s just like we pushed the doom and gloom cloud away just for a little bit,” he added “I feel like my work here is done, although it’s not done. I’ve got 400 more to go.”
Here, seven students from Yorktown's 2020 graduating class share the story behind their portraits and what senior year in quarantine has meant to them:
Peter Beckstrom, 18
I envisioned myself walking across the stage at graduation
Activities/hobbies: Young Democrats, Best Buddies, theater
Plans after high school: George Mason University
Peter chose to take his portrait to represent his love of politics.
”This is the first presidential election we will be voting in -- I really want to spread awareness about voting and that your vote counts regardless of what state or district you live in,” he said.
Peter, who has cerebral palsy, said he became more confident through extracurricular activities.
“When I got to ninth grade, I was really worried that people would look at me differently and not want to hang out with me because I had CP -- it took me a while to be comfortable with myself in school,” Peter said.
“I envisioned myself walking across the stage at graduation,” he said. “But since this whole quarantine, I’ve been really taking it day by day since we don’t know when this is going to end.”
Katie Nelson, 17
It's kind of good to sort of put everything on hold and just take a break
Activities/hobbies: Yorktown Band and Orchestra, American Youth Philharmonic Harp Ensemble
Plans after high school: University of South Carolina
Katie posed with her harp, which she learned how to play when she was 8 years old and she says, “encompasses who I am."
“It’s a huge part of my life," she said.
Katie spent most of her time in band, where she met a bunch of her friends.
“It’s sort of a dramatic shift in what we expected our senior year to be,” she said. “But I think what I’ve learned most is that sometimes life needs to sort of be put on hold because before this, I was just sort of racing through every day.”
Katie hopes to major in nursing. She expressed that with the pandemic, she’s inspired more than ever to be on the front lines.
“It hasn’t deterred me from wanting to be a nurse,” she said. “If anything, I just want to get out there and be able to help.”
Alex Ito, 18
It’s just learning to be more appreciative of what we have
Activities/hobbies: Varsity Cheer, theater, French Honor Society
Plans after high school: McGill University
Alex said he loves performing in front of people and loves the spotlight. He tried out for the cheer team freshman year and worked his way up to co-captain during the last two years.
“Getting up in front of a crowd and putting everything you have on the floor -- it’s an intense adrenaline rush,” said Alex. “There’s nothing like it.”
Alex was looking forward to the theater program’s one-person shows, where his project was going to be about Britney Spears. Right now, everything is up in the air for when the senior class would be able to present their projects, but he said his class is trying to work out a time in July if social distancing orders are lifted.
During his time in quarantine, Alex developed a newfound appreciation for school.
“It’s just learning to be more appreciative of what we have. You know, we’re really lucky. This is a hard time for a lot of people, and if you have anything really, it’s just important to hold on to that and be grateful that you have it,” he said.
Tara Hall, 18
We're just trying to keep our spirits up and stay positive
Activities/hobbies: Poetry club, theater
Plans after high school: Franklin and Marshall College
Tara lived and breathed theater, whether it was performing in front of an audience, making props or helping with makeup.
“I was very timid, and I was generally afraid to talk to people and kind of put my ideas out there,” said Tara. “[Theater] really helped me with self-confidence and being able to share my thoughts.”
For Tara, her friends in theater were also family.“We were all very close,” she said. “I definitely really miss seeing them on a day-to-day basis. Of course we all Zoom and we try to reach out to each other, but it’s definitely not the same.”
Tara posed with two of her handmade props and wore the dress she would have worn to prom. “It felt very personal for me and I just got to showcase the kind of things I’ve been working on throughout high school,” she said.
Tara was looking forward to her one-person show about Nymphadora Tonks from the “Harry Potter” series as well as prom, but she’s been coping with the cards she’s been dealt during the last few weeks of senior year in quarantine by making the most of what she has right now.
“You have to make the best of what you’ve got,” said Tara. “I’ve learned that we’re all very tenacious and we’re just trying to keep our spirits up and stay positive through all of this.”
Charlotte Thomson, 17
We're still trying to keep up that sense of camaraderie that makes Yorktown so special
Activities/hobbies: Swim, Best Buddies
Plans after high school: St. Olaf College
Charlotte’s love for the water goes beyond the sport. She volunteered at Yorktown’s pool to help teach children and adults in the community with intellectual or developmental disabilities how to swim. Being away from the water during quarantine has been especially difficult.
“I miss working out … I miss the people I swim with,” said Charlotte. “I would train eight times a week morning, night, everything in between.”
She described her senior year in quarantine the same way she described her team: camaraderie.
”We’re still trying to keep up that sense of camaraderie that makes Yorktown so special,” she said. “We’re bonding separately, if that makes sense. We’re seeing each other on Instagram, we’re reading stories about our classmates and it [Matt’s project] just makes us feel connected even though we’re not right now. And I think that’s just truly incredible.”
Jena Knaack, 18
Graduation was supposed to be my way of proving to others that somebody with dyslexia or a reading disability or anything like that, they can do it
Activities/hobbies: Track and field, bouldering
Plans after high school: Virginia Tech
Senior year was kind of like climbing a mountain for Jena, who found a love for bouldering over the past year.
She was under a lot of stress but has been more carefree after getting accepted to Virginia Tech, her dream school. “I feel like a happier person after senior year because it’s just so much more relaxed,” she said.
Jena, who had dyslexia as a kid, faced a variety of challenges growing up. “I struggled with a lot of teachers and students who weren’t supportive or expected me to get very far in life,” she said. But at Yorktown, Jena said she met teachers who helped boost her confidence and develop a real work ethic.
“Graduation was supposed to be my way of proving to others that somebody with dyslexia or a reading disability or anything like that, they can do it,” she said. “They just need a little bit of perseverance and they have to work hard.”
Pius Atubire, 19
I went through all four years of high school without graduation or prom -- it really sucks
Plans after high school: Lycoming College or Old Dominion University
When Pius was 11 years old, he and his family Ghana and moved to Arlington, Virginia.
“It was crazy -- all the diversity here, I never saw that back in Ghana,” recalled Pius. “Meeting the new people, the experience -- it was really crazy.”
While the move to a new city came with its challenges, Pius found solace in a sport that’s known in many countries across the globe.
“It’s a team sport and it’s not just a one-man sport. You have to work together with your team whether you're attacking or defending -- it has to be together,” said Pius of his love for the game. “I like it because it’s a team sport.”
For his senior year at Yorktown, Pius was named the captain of the soccer team, but the season was cut short due to coronavirus.
“At first, I thought we were going to play with no crowd, just us [players] on the field, so it [quarantine] didn’t bother me. Then a couple days later, I found out that it canceled the whole season, which I was really sad about,” said Pius. “It was like a big stab in the back for me because I realized I went through all four years of high school without graduation or prom -- it really sucks.”
Despite all that he’s missing out on, Pius tries to stay positive and still keeps his days productive as possible by sticking to his workout routine in the morning, working at the local grocery store and keeping in touch with friends.
ABC News' Radhika Chalasani contributed to this report.