Maggie Shannon photographs the “resilience and creativity” of prom season during the pandemic

“I was so excited to be there and celebrate with them,” Maggie tells us of her latest work, California Proms, in which she spent time photographing one of the most iconic rights of passage for American teenagers.

1 September 2021
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3 minute read


The prom is a quintessential marker of adolescence in the US. It’s the moment teenagers come together to celebrate finishing high school and moving onto pastures new. They get ready together, hire lavish rides to the venue (usually a done-up PE hall) and dance and sing all night long with the pals they have seen nearly every day in the hallways and classrooms of their school. It’s a cultural phenomenon that has grown in scale and popularity, becoming the norm for 16 to 18-year-olds across much of the globe. 2021 was, of course, different, however. Due to the pandemic, many teenagers in their final year of school spent their days online, in Zoom rooms rather than classrooms and so, when prom season happened to fall during a time when counties in California began to lift Covid-19 restrictions, photographer Maggie Shannon realised the proms of 2021 would not only look different, but represent a whole lot more than they used to.

“The high school students that graduated in 2021 had an incredibly tough year, with their entire senior year spent online instead of with their friends and teachers,” Maggie says. The photographer she set about trying to document the myriad ways in which “schools were trying to find ways to celebrate their seniors before they graduate, some with more traditional proms and others working within the confines of local health department rules.” The idea for the project began during a conversation with photo editor Amanda Webster, she adds: “It didn’t end up working out for that project but it catapulted me into cancelling a camping trip with some friends and, instead, spending the next 72 hours calling high school principals across California.”

The hours of calling paid off and Maggie managed to get hold of several teachers and activities directors who introduced her to students at their schools, so that she could document how they got ready for the big event. “I feel very lucky where I was able to meet a few of the students before prom and get to know them a little bit. I think being able to show up with a group of kids really helped me earn some trust,” she explains. This trust is palpable in Maggie’s images which depict friends at ease in their bedrooms or glancing at the camera away from the crowd. Rather than posing and making a big show of having a photographer at their prom, the students allowed Maggie to assimilate, looking to her in the quieter moments as well as in the most exciting ones.

GalleryMaggie Shannon: California Proms (Copyright © Maggie Shannon, 2021)

The more candid moments are Maggie’s favourites, she continues. Explaining how she saw a maturity in the teenagers that she thinks she lacked at their age, and bowled over by how supportive they were of each other, she particularly enjoyed capturing those moments where they were just acting their age; “something like screaming along to their favourite song in the limo or dancing. Those were the special moments where they weren’t pretending to be an adult, they were just themselves and free.”

In terms of what she took away from the project, Maggie’s says: “I was so excited to be there and celebrate with them,” and that she, therefore, hopes others see how incredible “the resilience and creativity of the students and faculty” was. With various obstacles to the usual prom in their way, schools adapted to offer everything from “socially distanced red carpets to plated dinners on the football field. One principal told me that many of these activities might become new traditions moving forward.” For many, their prom was the first time seeing their classmates and teachers for over a year, as well as a chance to say goodbye before heading off to university or work. The joy, love and community that exists among these peer groups and their faculty is, in turn, hard to ignore in Maggie’s images which exude the bittersweet excitement of such events. “I wanted to document those emotional moments for these kids who grew up during such a historic and devastating year,” she says. “All of the chaos, drama, tears and pure joy that comes from being a teen, especially in 2021.”

GalleryMaggie Shannon: California Proms (Copyright © Maggie Shannon, 2021)

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Maggie Shannon: California Proms (Copyright © Maggie Shannon, 2021)

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About the Author

Ruby Boddington

Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.

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