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For Seniors, Prom Portraits Provide Some Normalcy During Pandemic

  As Emilia Vizachero poses for a portrait on the steps of her soon-to-be alma mater, her photographer makes a request that would’ve seemed alien just a few months ago: can he get a shot of her removing her face mask?


Vizachero, donned in a striped shirt and a royal blue skirt with a matching face mask, obliges. 


The photographer, Joe Giordano, takes a second to adjust his camera – his own mask has fogged up his camera’s viewfinder. 

Along with the rest of her graduating class at the Baltimore School for the Arts, Vizachero will not be attending prom this year: it’s been cancelled, due to the coronavirus pandemic. But Giordano, who teaches a black and white photography class at the school, wanted to give the seniors a sense of normalcy by documenting what milestones he could. 


So, the award-winning photographer set up a black backdrop on the school’s art deco steps on Madison Street, and invited students to come by, dressed in their would-be prom outfits.


“I don't pose them. It’s kind of more like a collaboration,” Giordano says. “I let them do the posing so they feel comfortable with how they are represented.”


This is definitely a senior year that we are not going to forget. ... I think having a picture that's kind of unique like this is something that I'll be grateful for.


Dozens of seniors took up Giordano’s offer on Tuesday and Wednesday, donned in their finest attire. Most of them hadn’t seen each other in months. School staff were worried that the classmates, who are very close-knit, would have trouble with the social distancing aspect of the photography project. 


“I was a little worried that we wouldn’t be able to keep them apart, but they’re ace champions about it,” says Samantha Buker, a program manager at the school.  


Seniors photographed on Wednesday say the prom’s cancellation was a heavy blow: the arts school’s proms are particularly weird and wonderful, thanks to students’ creativity, humor and commitment to theme.


“A good friend of mine that graduated two years ago wore jorts to prom his senior year,” says Ethan Pound, who chose a slick blue velvet jacket for his portrait. “There’s just such a wide variety of people making their own outfits, you know, and dressing up in weird ways for the occasion.”  


Isabelle Rawa, a violinist, wore a bold red blazer.


“I bought this in like the winter and then I thought, ‘oh, this would be great for prom,’ ” she says. “Oh well.”


As they wait in line for their portraits, the seniors mourn other things that were taken away from them.  


“I’ve played [the violin for] graduation for all three years since I’ve been here, so I was so excited to finally have them play for me,” Rawa says. 


Senior Joshua Moore lamented the loss of senior week and one crucial tradition in particular: the senior prank.  


“It’s kind of hard to describe how tough this has been,” Moore says. “It's really been sad, honestly.”


The students are clear: losing the festivities of senior week and graduation unequivocally hurts, but at least they’ll have the prom portraits. 


“It was nice that they put this together to try and make us at least a little happier,” Rawa says.


A few years from now, Vizachero says, she thinks she’ll look at the portraits Giordano took and feel joy. 


“This is definitely a senior year that we are not going to forget,” she said. “And I think having a picture that's kind of unique like this is something that I'll be grateful for.”


Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.