LA’s Class of 2020 Graduates In A Tumultuous Time
As the coronavirus pandemic raged and Angelenos were asked to stay “safer at home,” I thought about how I might contribute to this historic moment with my photography. During the last 15 years, I’ve produced portrait essays about issues such as immigration and community-building, and I've created work that explores our shared identity and values.
To me, young people are a fascinating, intimate gateway into the COVID-19 crisis.
Standing at the precipice of adulthood, the members of this generation will feel the social and economic impact of the virus for the rest of their lives.
These kids grew up connected to social media and came of age during Donald Trump’s presidency. When the virus hit, high school seniors were at a pivotal moment in their lives, entering the home stretch of their K-12 education and cruising toward graduation. Coronavirus forced them to cut short the rites and festivities that would have marked the momentous occasion. Their passion projects would be largely unrealized. Their achievements, unrecognized. Rituals cancelled. Celebrations muted.
I thought about what a tumultuous time these students had lived through, capped off by a global pandemic. I wanted to hear their perspectives.
“Senior year is the culmination of so much, more than even the school career, it’s the culmination of childhood in a lot of ways. What happens when the culmination, the rites of passage, what happens when those are taken away? How does that effect a person?” — Sam Comen
I reached out to friends in the Los Angeles education system and posted in my Instagram stories. Ashley Brockman, a high school friend who is now a teacher and librarian at Palos Verdes High School, connected me with her network of teachers. After a month of outreach, pre-production and securing permissions, I spent six weeks photographing 40 students who attend nine different schools throughout L.A. — five public schools, three magnets and one independent school.
I wanted to document their hopes, their fears and their creativity in devising new graduation rituals.
I asked them what they'd miss most about their end-of-year rites and we crafted scenarios to represent those losses. One couple, denied the chance to perform their last musical together, worked with me to stage a musical theater scene at one of their homes. In other cases, I was able to photograph “drive-by” graduations that had already been planned.
Two weeks before I finished taking photos for this project, George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, touching off nationwide protests. Here in Los Angeles, thousands took to the streets to express their outrage.
The students I met during the protests were shaken up and saddened. About to bloom into independence, the class of 2020 was coping with a society that seemed to be splitting at the seams. For many of them, Floyd’s murder has forced them to question their assuptions about our culture and values — and about their paths forward.
Making this project, I’ve seen the emotional ambivalence that comes with having your rites of passage interrupted but I’ve also found, without fail, a deep resilience in each student I photographed.
I am struck by the gratitude many of them feel. They’re thankful they’ve been able to stay safe, connect with their families and find time to reflect before they take their next steps in life. I’m curious how these experiences will shape the class of 2020 and how the class of 2020 will, in turn, reshape society.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.