In May 2018, ten years after graduating from my high school in Scarborough, I connected with some of my former teachers and asked if I could set up a small photo booth at the school's upcoming prom. I was exploring studio portraiture at the time, and was excited by the prospect of photographing so many different faces in one evening in a more controlled way. I loaded one studio light, a fabric backdrop, and a 35mm camera into an Uber and headed to the prom venue. Throughout the night, there was a steady stream of students - all dressed up and excited to be seen.
I didn’t realize until I looked at the resulting prints that this was also an exercise in reflecting on my own high school experience. I remember having mixed feelings around prom - while optimistic about the journey beyond high school, it also signaled the end of this relatively easy, carefree period of my life. My ambivalence about graduating came through at prom - I spent the evening watching everyone having a good time, and for me, that was a good time.
In 2019, I returned with a camera capable of greater resolution, two studio lights and a grey paper backdrop. I had fewer frames on this larger format of film, so each student got only one take, which resulted in clearer, more intentional images than the previous year.
Unlike more traditional prom photos, I decided to use chairs with my setup to break up the vertical lines of standing figures and focus attention on their expressions instead. The seated positions made the students slightly more relaxed, and this informality allowed for students to present themselves as they wished. I used a slightly wider lens both years in order to capture the hands and accessories in the student’s laps. The way the hands are placed, or the way they fall, are just as evocative to me as the facial expressions.
These images provide a lot of information that root the portraits in place and time; current fashion trends, makeup and hair styles, and cultural backgrounds indicative of a high school in Scarborough. The sense of occasion comes across in their attire as well as body language - an adjustment to a corsage as the hands are placed neatly in the lap, or the last minute decision to wrap an arm around a friend.
Now that I’m over ten years removed from high school, what I find most satisfying about looking at these pictures are the faces and projected attitudes of the students. Through smirks, gestures, confidence in their poses or even indifference to the camera, they remind me of the different versions of myself, my friends, and classmates from those formative years of my life.
Special thanks to Amanda Lemos, Sarah Aranha, Thomas Gilmor, Luisa Fracassi, Sean Buckley and Christin El-Kholy.
Justin Aranha is an Indian-Canadian photographer, raised in Scarborough, Ontario. Working as a commercial photographer for brands and publications while concurrently exploring various personal photographic projects, he is heavily focused on people and portraiture. Based in Toronto, his work is a product of his upbringing and a visual extension of his values. Justin has self-published two photo books: Reference Picture Book (2019) and Reference Fashion Paper (2021) with his collaborative partner Nariman Janghorban.