Mackenzie Clark's distressed bell-bottoms splay out on the sidewalk as she crouches low to the ground, her camera lens pointed up at a group of recently graduated high school seniors.
They huddle close together with their arms around each other, laughing and goofing around as Clark snaps photos.
Each one has their hair curled, faces done up — or as they might say — beat for the gods. They're all clad in floor length ball gowns: the dresses they were supposed to wear to their senior prom.
All those special senior moments they’d looked forward to for years, the coronavirus pandemic took them away, and they all had a lot to say about it.
"I was like, 'Dang. High School Musical lied,'” Natalie Barretto joked.
The group roared with laughter.
“It was sad, very sad,” Kyra Smiley said. “I cried.”
Mariah Morales nodded and added, “I wasted my money.”
Justine Orru said the end of the school year is usually the most fun. All the girls were looking forward to traditions like prom, graduation and those smaller moments with friends reserved for seniors alone.
“We were having a senior day and I think it was like our 4th and 5th period, the seniors would get to come out, like out of school, and we could just have fun and spend time together,” Orru said. “And now we don't have it, so it kind of sucks."
That’s why Mackenzie Clark decided to offer high school seniors free prom and graduation photoshoots through her business Top Secret Images. She's an editorial photographer who does a lot of professional headshots for kids, but during this pandemic, she felt compelled to give back to the seniors who lost out on those special events.
"In 2015 when I was a senior, my friends and I, we went full out at prom. So every year when it's prom season, I always look forward to seeing senior's prom portraits on social media, and knowing that I wouldn't see any this year is what really what made me want to photograph other seniors,” she said. “I love seeing girls all dressed up and guys in their handsome suits, it's really cute."
Clark completely blocked out her schedule for the month of May, taking no paid clients. She wanted to focus solely on the free photoshoots for seniors — she won't even accept tips.
"With the pandemic going on and COVID-19, I really wanted to do something to really show compassion to someone else. I am committed to being a service for all mankind and really just serving the community any possible way I can,” she said.
Clark said she understands how expensive an event like prom can be — a dress alone can cost hundreds, plus there’s the shoes, accessories, hair and nails. It adds up quick, and many of those costs are non-refundable.
These seniors have gone through a lot this year, Clark said she can see it on their faces when they show up for their photoshoots.
“When I first meet them and see them, I still kind of see like the drain in their face actually and their expression,” she said. “I had one young lady who came and through her expression, you would think she was informed her prom cancelled that morning.”
Clark said helping to commemorate a senior’s time in high school means a lot to her.
"Knowing that I'm touching families, knowing that I'm touching students in their heart is really what this is about,” she said.
Seniors Barretto and Morales said even though prom was a bust, they’re grateful to Clark for capturing these memories for them.
“At least we got to have fun together before high school ends,” Baretto said.
The group nodded and smiled sadly in agreement.
“I would say the same thing,” Morales said. “It was nice to take pictures. I mean, we didn't get to experience prom, but with my friends it was good.”
Even without the dance, thanks to Clark's photos they'll be able to reminisce about this moment for years to come.
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