The Buie family in Killeen held up a white backdrop featuring their daughter Jordan Buie, regally glancing over her shoulder in an elegant prom dress.
High school seniors across America have had their traditional prom dances and commencement ceremonies canceled due to the threat of COVID-19, and photographer Christian K. Lee had decided to showcase the graduates to give them a dignified end to their high school experience.
The outdoor setting, and the presence of her support system helped showcase the unique experience of the 2020 graduating senior class, said Lee, a Fort Hood soldier who lives in Killeen.
“It’s their chance to say, ‘in this moment, society is taking something away from our her, and we’re going to give that moment back to our daughter,’” Lee said. “‘We’re going to highlight you — we’re going to hold you up.’”
Buie is one of several Lee has photographed so far, and he plans to feature several more in coming weeks.
Talking on the phone with his graduating cousin Yenaiah Smith in California, the gravity of what she would miss out on at the close of her high school experience started sinking in for the Killeen resident.
Virtual graduations celebrations have become common for seniors across the country transitioning to the next phase of their lives, but Lee felt he wanted to do something more.
Lee first became interested in photography while studying journalism in college. He started photographing his fraternity’s community service projects to help publicize what they stood for, he said.
It was then that he first began to see the power of a photograph.
“I realized I wanted to make a career in photography,” Lee said. “I started working for my school newspaper, and from there the Ferguson unrest happened near my school. Being from Chicago, you hear about people getting shot all the time. I thought, ‘I need to be photographing this.’”
Because of the proximity, Lee said he was one of the first people on the scene.
“I was able to take all these amazing photos,” Lee said. “I submitted my pictures to the Washington Post and got an internship with them, and that was the beginning of my career.”
Lee joined the military in January 2019 as a logistics officer.
“My first job out of college was in a military town and my father was prior service, I always wanted to join,” Lee said.
Even after he joined the Army, Lee said he was always on the look out for more photography projects.
“When you’re so used to photographing national news and things that are seen all over the country, when you move to a smaller town, you ask, ‘how can I make an impact on my smaller community?’” Lee said. “There’s still important news that happens here.”
At the start of the COVID-19 crisis, Lee started taking pictures of people in masks, but he wanted to find something out of the ordinary to feature.
“As a photojournalist, whenever something major happens, there’s usually a subject point or a type of photograph that overwhelms viewers,” Lee said. “They’re seeing the same thing. It’s my job as a photographer to show something different.”
Inspired by his cousin’s graduation story, Lee decided he wanted to document local seniors and give their families an opportunity to celebrate their achievements — and to show their support systems.
“All these seniors in our community that didn’t get a chance to go on a prom,” Lee said. “When I’m pointing my lens on a subject, what makes me stay focused on a topic over time is it’s important and it needs to be seen, and needs to be talked about.”
Lee observes social distancing as he meets with the families of graduating seniors and captures their moment.
“As a photographer, I have to be a distance away from the person anyway to get the shot in the first place,” Lee said. “They kinda want to shake hands, or hug you — show some type of sense of gratitude — I have to remind them, we need to keep a distance.”
For his work in Killeen and Harker Heights of the prom photos and people wearing masks, Lee uses a film camera, using black and white film that he develops at home.
Lee’s work is featured on his website, Christianklee.com, along with other projects he has done, and he intends to share a digital copy of the senior showcases with their families. Ultimately, he would like to enter the photos in competitions, but his primary goal is to give the senior class prominent recognition in their own community.
“I’ve had the gratification of seeing my work printed all over the country, but my ultimate goal is for people in their community to see the photos,” Lee said. “It’s an example of the families in Killeen, The idea of them being able to see this photograph, that’s an impact in itself.”
Lee said documenting their sacrifice for posterity and for their community is important to him.
“My goal is to document Killeen in the state that it is in now,” Lee said. “But I don’t want them to be overwhelmed with the different policies that are going on, the stores that have closed — I don’t want them to forget the seniors. This slice of humanity is not forgotten.”