ARLINGTON, Va. – All this week, The Buffalo News has been publishing beautiful photographs, by Mark Mulville, of high school students across Western New York who lost the last months of their senior years to the global pandemic.
Here’s the story behind the story: Cathaleen Curtiss, director of photography at The News, borrowed the concept from her friend Matt Mendelsohn, of Arlington, Va. (As it happens, Matt is also a friend of mine. We worked together at USA Today – and let’s just say he’s the kind of guy who takes me to Washington Capitals games when the Buffalo Sabres come to town.)
For the past two months, Mendelsohn has taken it upon himself to shoot socially distanced portraits of the Class of 2020 at Yorktown High School, which he’s turned into a stand-in for high schools across the country as a sort of Every High, USA.
He calls the project Not Forgotten. When he started it, I called and asked him to look for erstwhile Buffalo families.
“All roads lead to Buffalo,” he said with a laugh. Then, of course, he found one.
I had hoped he would; that way I could write a column about this remarkable thing he was doing. Not that I’d be the first: His story’s been told in The Washington Post and on Today, Good Morning America, CBS Evening News, NPR, all of Washington’s local newscasts, plus the BBC and networks in Germany and Australia.
Why did the tale of one high school in Northern Virginia strike a chord around the world? It’s as simple as this: These portraits convey a profound sense of loss, and of hope, all at once. And that’s what inspired Curtiss to call for a similar project at The News.
“If it was just kids in tulips – you know, senior photos in tall grass at sunset – it wouldn’t be effective,” Mendelsohn says. “But it has a journalistic feel. That’s step one. And it has these kids in their own words, and that’s what pushes it over the edge.”
Mendelsohn asks the seniors to write a chunky paragraph about themselves, answering three key questions. The first two are easy: What did you do in high school? Where are you headed next? The third one forms the crux of his entire venture: What do you love?
“It’s a way of asking, ‘What makes you, you?’ ” Mendelsohn says. Their answers help the seniors decide what it is they want their portraits to say about them.
Which brings us to Lucia Voye. Her portrait shows her with sheet music for “Dreamgirls,” the farewell song that she and other seniors in Yorktown’s choir never got to sing at the spring recital that never came to be.
Think of Lucia as Buffalo once removed: James Voye, her father, grew up in Amherst and graduated from St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute and the University at Buffalo. His son, Sandro, will be a freshman at Yorktown in the fall.
Voye, 53, is director of corporate affairs for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, in Washington. His father and grandfather once ran the Buffalo local, and his grandfather once ran the national outfit.
“I work for a blue-collar organization, and I think of Buffalo as a lunch-pail kind of place,” Voye says. “We stand up for our city. We love it and we’re proud of it.”
Arlington should be proud of Mendelsohn: He’s worked hundreds of hours, free, for the public good. He says, well, he had the time; his portrait business was all but shut down by the same virus that stole spring from these seniors. More than that, though, he says, once the idea came to him, he simply had to do it.
Mendelsohn’s epiphany arrived in the middle of the night. This was in April, when many people across the country were posting their own senior photos from high school on Facebook in supposed solidarity with the Class of 2020. Matt thought: How is that helping this class?
So he decided to do something about it – something big. And for eight weeks, he has shot portraits of more than 400 seniors. A few are friends of Mendelsohn’s daughter, Alexandra, who is a junior at Yorktown, but most are young adults he’d never met before.
Mendelsohn likes to say his project is photography meets speed dating, since he tries to keep each session to roughly 15 minutes. How else could he get to a dozen or so per day? And he brings along a canvas backdrop for a unifying element. (You can see a gallery of the pictures here.)
The project is as much journalistic as philanthropic. Mendelsohn, 57, worked as a photojournalist for 16 years – covering wars and Super Bowls, presidents and movie stars – with stops at the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, United Press International and USA Today. He’s run his own creative photo business in the 19 years since.
Or as the Washington Post columnist Paula Dvorak put it: “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.”
Well, I’m no big deal, but he shot my daughter’s wedding. And last summer, in Mexico, he shot Curtiss’ daughter’s wedding. He and Curtiss met in the late 1980s, when he was at UPI and she was at The Washington Times.
“I called to tell Matt we were borrowing his idea,” Curtiss says. “And he said, ‘Cool.’ ”
Mendelsohn, who loves Mulville’s photos, is pleased that now Western New York’s seniors, like Yorktown’s, are Not Forgotten.
“Glad to be the inspiring spark,” he says.
The Yorktown seniors told him they don’t want to be seen as whiners who complain about missing milestones while others are dying of the virus.
“They weren’t trying to say, ‘Hey, look at us. We lost out on prom,’ ” Mendelsohn says. “They were trying to say, ‘We have a different kind of loss going on here. It’s equally valid, it’s just completely different.’ And I thought, ‘Wow. That’s exactly right.’ ”
A last bit of loss comes today. Yorktown’s graduation ceremony will happen virtually this afternoon, which means Lucia will not get to walk across the stage at D.A.R. Constitution Hall, a few blocks from the White House. Her grandparents from Buffalo were supposed to be there.
All this makes Voye sad for his daughter. He still remembers his commencement from St. Joe’s in 1984.
“We graduated at Kleinhans,” he says, “in our maroon caps and gowns.”
Lucia, though, is like a lot of the seniors whom Mendelsohn has met along the way – wise beyond her years. Here’s her reaction to missing out on the pomp and circumstance.
“At first I was really upset,” she says. “But now I look at it more like a wakeup call for all of us to be grateful for what we do have.”