Capturing a significant moment in history

It all started when Yellowknife-based photographer Pat Kane posted a tongue-in-cheek Instagram post in response to the new reality of social distancing associated with COVID-19: “So much for my photography business, I guess I’ll have to start taking photos of people through their windows.” 

The joke quickly became a reality as people responded that they would love to have a portrait of themselves and their families in this unique moment of history. With that social isolation portraits (also known as “doortraits” and “porchtraits”) were born. A set of photographers across the country took up the torch to provide the same service for their home communities, including three Yukoners – Mark Kelly, Alistair Maitland and Erik Pinkerton.

“There are about 20 to 30 of us doing this around the world now,” explained Kelly, “it fills both a journalistic need right now to document this time in history through the lives of ordinary people and it fills an artistic need for us as photographers to create meaningful work at this time when our ability to work has been seriously compromised.”

Maitland echoed these sentiments, “This project has really allowed me to take a pulse on the state of Whitehorse right now. Everyone has been put out by COVID, and this work allows me to see this experience through each individual’s lens, and capture those stories for them moving forwards.”

Kelly and Maitland are part of a collective of fifteen photographers called the Isolation Portraits project. The group is bringing the portraits they’ve been taking together into a website hosted by Iqaluit-based photographer Lisa Milosavljevic to better share our collective experiences during isolation with a broader audience.

“There’s been a really strong desire from people participating in the project, and from those who have yet to participate, to see the larger body of work,” said Kelly. “It actually has a very strong sense of social connection.”

Moving forwards beyond COVID, the collective would love to see a gallery show or book develop out of the Isolation Portraits project, but for the time being the focus is on capturing as many portraits as possible.

“I have the goal of shooting 1000 portraits,” said Maitland. “Over the last couple of weeks I’ve realized that to date this project has reached just one slice of Whitehorse’s demographic and I really want to expand it to reach everyone, so I’m changing my fee to be by donation to lower the barriers for people to participate.”

He added, “This first month of social distancing has catalyzed a great shift in priorities for me – creativity and human interaction have become so much more important than money in this moment.”

That connection to the community is playing out for both photographers not only in the time they spend with their portrait subjects, but what they chose to do with the fees they collect for the work. Both Kelly and Maitland are giving a fifth of their fees to local charities – to the Anti-Poverty Coalition and the Whitehorse Food Bank, respectively.

“I think the hashtag #we’reallinittogether captures it perfectly,” said Kelly. “This was a way to give back to the community and to do something meaningful while also putting food on the table.”

The project does not come without a dose of controversy though, despite its noble intentions. The Professional Photographers of Canada put out a press release asking photographers to abstain from this type of photography for fear that they would not be able to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

“We are checking the recommendations from Dr. Hanley every day to make sure we’re adhering to them,” said Kelly, “we’re photographing people using 200 milimetre lenses so that we can stand well back. The closest we ever get to someone is the two metre ‘one caribou length’ recommendation, but most of the time we’re more like ‘16 caribou lengths’ away.”

Photos: Mark Kelly

Maitland shared the message, “For those who might be worried if this project is contravening the CMO’s guidelines, I was able to ask Dr. Hanley, himself, about my Doortraits Project and was assured that with the precautions that are being taken, there is no risk.”

But just because the photographers are standing on the sidewalk taking a picture of you from 25 feet away while you stand in your doorway or peer out your front window doesn’t mean that the resulting photos aren’t telling some amazing stories.

“I had one family all press and smear their faces across their front window,” said Kelly, “it was hilarious. They used the photos to send out Easter cards.”

Maitland fielded a special request from the family of Dylan Cozens, Yukon’s first hockey player to be selected in the first round of an NHL entry draft (to the Buffalo Sabres in 2019). “They asked me to do their portrait on the anniversary of the Humboldt accident to honour both those that were lost and those families that are still suffering.”

Organizations are starting to tie isolation portraits into their programming as well. The City of Whitehorse recently arranged to have Maitland photograph each of their Volunteer of the Year nominees in lieu of the traditional ceremony they would hold to acknowledge the nominees meaningful work for the community.

Reflecting on the project as a whole, Kelly said, “I’m finding that people really want a family portrait to capture this unique time when they’re needing to stay home, and I’m really happy to be able to provide that for them.”

If you would like your own isolation portrait you can sign up through the photographer’s websites/facebook:


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