These Canadian photographers are capturing life during COVID-19, one family (isolation) portrait at a time

'Partly an art project, partly a mental health break,' the movement is spreading through the north.

'Partly an art project, partly a mental health break,' the movement is spreading through the north

A family portrait for 2020. (L-R): Caitlin, Paige and Dez Loreen ... plus one adorable doggo (uncredited). Shot in Inuvik, N.W.T. by Weronika Murray. (Weronika Murray)

Imagine moving to a whole new town during a global pandemic. Erik Pinkerton's in the middle of doing just that, and since relocating his family to Marsh Lake last weekend — a small residential burg roughly 55km from Whitehorse — the photographer's even managed to meet the neighbours, all while sticking to social distancing protocol.

For $25 (with $5 going to the food bank), Pinkerton will drive to homes in the Southern Lakes region, doing portrait shoots that capture this lonely new slice of Canadian life: self-isolation.

"We're all in this together right now," says Pinkerton. "We're trying to keep ourselves busy, and so this is something fun for everyone" — those behind the camera included.

Since the weekend, a growing number of Canadian photographers have been making similar house calls — especially, it seems, in communities throughout the north. Lisa Milosavljevic is busy in Iqaluit, wildly waving instructions to families who "say cheese" from behind their windows.

Megan Levy Mason and family in Iqaluit. (Lisa Milosavljevic)

Same with Weronika Murray, in Inuvik, N.W.T. The spread of COVID-19 has caused "about a billion work cancellations" for the event photographer, with gigs drying up through July, but she's steadily added bookings for "self-isolation portraits" since announcing the idea on Facebook.

Shot in Inuvik, N.W.T. By Weronika Murray. As she writes: "The family in the photo runs a small restaurant called Alestine's that was serving food to-go until a few days ago." (Weronika Murray)

In Battleford, Sask., Matt Jacques is reaching out to housebound families, though he has a personal interest in capturing "the people keeping the lights on," as he puts it. His first two portraits capture local arts workers: one at the Dekker Centre and the other at Allen Sapp Gallery. (Like institutions all over the world, they've gone dark for the foreseeable future.)

Kali Weber, general manager of the Dekker Centre, photographed at their now closed facility in North Battleford, Sask. (Matt Jacques)

Alistair Maitland says he's been handling a plethora of photo requests since Friday, and the Whitehorse photographer's keen to document the porches and windows of the city, gathering residents' stories along the way. "The goal is to get everybody in Yukon, really. And whether it be done by me, or another Yukon photographer, that's what I'd like to see."

One of the first social distancing portraits, or "doortraits," that Alistair Maitland took in Whitehorse. (@alistairmaitland/Instagram)

Maitland and Pinkerton are in communication, it turns out — and through some connection or another, all five are familiar with Pat Kane, a Yellowknife-based photojournalist, whose own series of "Isolation Portraits" launched late last week.

Kane passed on being interviewed, but as he writes on Instagram, what started as a goofy idea — taking pictures through people's windows — wound up giving the community "a document of this very strange and scary time in the world." As he puts it: "It's partly an art project, partly a mental health break for me and the people in the pics."


"It's kind of a snowball effect now," says Murray, "and it's really cool to see different photographers' takes."

Between them, they're brainstorming how everyone's efforts might come together — maybe through a website, maybe through a photo book, maybe through a gallery show when the world's finally on the other side of Purell hoarding and panic. But they're all working independently.

"I don't think it's a collaboration," says Murray. "It's more of a movement right now." And they all agree that community-building is the focus, even as their livelihoods are being hit by COVID-19.

"At first it was like, 'Oh great. This is a way for me to stay afloat,'" says Maitland. "But then I realized, 'Oh, this is an awesome community service.'"

"This isn't really about booking a portrait session with me," says Jacques. "It's about trying to find a way to connect with each other."

In most cases, the photographers are substantially cutting their usual rates (they're charging in the $20-25 range), and donating a chunk of their fees to local organizations in need. 

It's just been really nice to see someone face to face, even if it is through a pane of glass.- Weronika Murray, photographer

Self-isolation hasn't stopped word from spreading on social media, they say, and the shoots themselves offer a rare opportunity to meet people IRL.

"I really look forward to them because it's not just me taking a photo of someone through their window and walking away," says Murray. "Usually, we make faces at each other — or they show me their pet or we try to get the window open and have a little chat. It's just been really nice to see someone face to face, even if it is through a pane of glass."

Stylistically, the images vary slightly. Pinkerton's are straightforward family portraits, with residents beaming from their front porches and doorways. ("The one thing I've been concentrating on is essentially having a nice photo for these people to remember the time by," he says.) Most enjoy the challenge of shooting through windows, though, using all that triple-plane glass to create a sort of double-exposure effect, maybe capturing a bit of outside world — which is, of course, now infuriatingly out of reach.

And yet, everyone's beaming — as if the borders weren't closed and nobody was stress-following the latest updates from the WHO. Together, it's an enormously positive picture of how people are living through this peculiar moment.

"The vibes are good," says Milosavljevic, and as she's walked the breadth of her city — photographing her neighbours in Iqaluit — she's found that feeling everywhere around her. "The houses I can see from my kitchen window, people have been putting paper hearts in their windows. And walking around [between shoots], I've noticed a lot of houses have them. People are trying to stay positive here, and are really respecting everyone's needs and helping each other out."

Like all the photographers, she plans to keep taking isolation portraits for as long as possible. (As of writing, Nunavut is the only Canadian region without a reported case of COVID-19, but the territory has declared a public health emergency, with cross-border travel restrictions in place.)

Says Jacques: "I think it's an opportunity to demonstrate how even in these exceptional times, and especially when we're further apart from each other, that ultimately we're going through this together."

Check out a selection of their photos.

Whitehorse photographer Alistair Maitland is taking portraits of people self-isolating during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Alistair Maitland Photography)
Rachel Blais and Fernie in Iqaluit. (Lisa Milosavljevic)
Leah Garvin, manager of galleries for the City of North Battleford. Matt Jacques photographed her through the window of the Allen Sapp Gallery. (Matt Jacques)
Erik Pinkerton is offering "social distancing doorway/window photos" to residents in the Southern Lakes region of Yukon. (@erikpinkertonphotography/Facebook)
Mom and daughter Maureen and Hayleigh Conway in Inuvik, N.W.T. (Weronika Murray)
Ashley Morine (and canine pal) in Inuvik, N.W.T. (Weronika Murray)

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at See more of our COVID-related coverage here.

About the Author

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.

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