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Courtesy of The Washington Post

Photographer Matt Mendelsohn taking a portrait of a Yorktown senior.

Fiffy Donahoe, Sentry Staff Reporter

“What makes you you?” This is the question photographer Matt Mendelsohn asks each senior as he puts together his masterpiece: a collection of portraits depicting the quiet strength of a forgotten class. With no stage to walk across and no championship game to play, Mendelsohn’s pictures perfectly encapsulate the feeling of loss and resilience moving forward. 

Just under a year ago, each rising senior strolled down the wrestling hallway to have their portrait taken; all looking quite glamorous. Every hair in place, every face made up, every shirt crisp and ironed. They donned the trademark baby blue cap and gown for the first time, wondering what it would feel like to wear them through the doors of Constitution Hall in just a short year. Little did they know that within that year, the entire planet would be shut down and they would watch everything they had worked for slip right through their fingers. With the help of Mendelsohn, they are now being redefined by new senior portraits — this time without the stiff poses and too wide smiles. 

The idea first came to Mendelsohn —  whose daughter is a Yorktown junior  — as he scrolled through Facebook one night, only to be hit by a stream of parents posting their old photos to honor the senior class. 

“It was cute, but there was not much honoring going on. It was an empty gesture,” Mendelsohn said. 

The wheels began to turn and the very next morning, Mendelsohn reached out to neighbor Suzy Wagner to test out a tentative idea. What started as a casual photoshoot of five different seniors quickly grew into a full blown photo essay. Wagner’s daughter, senior Gillian Wagner, has watched its progress from the beginning. 

“My mom and I are both helping organize the schedule. After two days, the Arlington Now article came out and then it got huge. We set up a website to make scheduling easier, and at the end of one day I had 80 emails of people who had signed up. I currently have over 200,” Gillian Wagner said. 

Senior Casey Baxter was one of the original five subjects. Baxter, member of both the Yorktown Symphonic Band and Marching Patriots, is pictured with his trumpet. The instrument, which he picked up as a freshman, is silent and still as it sits in his lap, capturing the melancholy feeling of a year cut too short. At the same time, it allows Baxter to connect to a piece of himself even as he was robbed of his final curtain call. 

“The pictures have empowered me by allowing me to give a representation of myself and of a part of my high school experience,” Baxter said. 

Mendelsohn’s artful technique first began to bud in high school and has continued to flourish for nearly four decades. The series highlights his talent for evoking a hundred different emotions with a single shot. 

“Our brain responds to still images in a different way from video. It has the ability to isolate a moment in our consciousness. Think of the man trying to stop the tank during the Tiananmen Square uprising in China. There is a video of that historic moment but we all think of that one still image,” Mendelsohn said. 

Beyond a collection of beautiful black and white pictures, the project will forever capture the senior class as they are in this moment, on the brink of their entire lives. They will carry this series with them for years, not to mention gratitude for the man that made it all happen. Mendelsohn went out of his way — as well as the safety of his home — to poke a little bit of sunshine through these dark days. 

“It means everything to me. Having our whole year stolen from us was really hard, and it’s the little moments that are the hardest. This project allows us to be seen and heard, and not just as a Yorktown class, but the entire class of 2020,” Gillian Wagner said. 

The experience has been meaningful on all sides, as it has brought Mendelsohn back to the root of what he loves about his work. It has inspired him and all of us to chase after passion, for nothing is ever sure in life. 

“The best ideas sometimes come quickly, organically and spontaneously. Had I not gone into the street to take a picture of my own daughter wearing her Spring Fling dress, this idea may have not germinated. Had I not been lying in bed a few hours later looking at silly Facebook memes of senior portraits, this idea may not have come to me. But serendipity is not to be messed with … that applies to anything you do in life. Don’t wait for other people — follow your own compass,” Mendelsohn said. 

No one could have foreseen a global pandemic coming to sweep away the rest of senior year. At times, it seems easier to just wallow in the anger and sadness of it all. But the trumpet will sing again, the soccer ball will once again find a net, the homemade telescope will search the skies for years to come. This project teaches each of us how to find the beauty in the ugliest of situations, how to look for the sun rising above the clouds. It will rise again, after all, and we will be there to greet it.