Self-isolation gives rise to a new kind of photography — through windows and doors

It started as a joke, but now some northern photographers are doing a brisk business taking portraits of people gazing out from inside their homes.

Northern photographers find ways to maintain distance from their subjects

Yellowknife photographer Pat Kane says it started as a joke, but it turns out people do want photos of themselves behind glass, self-isolating at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

When business recently dried up for Whitehorse photographer Alistair Maitland because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he realized he needed to come up with something else.

"I am a portrait and event photographer, and of course there's no more events, so there's no more business," he said.

"So I was trying to think of different ways to be, I guess, a little bit more entrepreneurial."

Now he's doing a brisk business in doorway portraits, or what he calls "door-traits" — shots of people and families in their homes, self-isolating and maintaining social distance. He stays outside while his subjects stand in the doorway or look out through a window.

"I'm sitting with a long lens and stuff," he said.

He charges $25 per portrait, and donates $5 of that to the local food bank. At first some people were paying him cash, but he soon realized that wasn't good practice — social distancing means online payment only.

'I am a portrait and event photographer, and of course there's no more events, so there's no more business,' said photographer Alistair Maitland. He took Kane's idea and ran with it in Whitehorse. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

Maitland credits the original idea to Yellowknife photographer Pat Kane, who started making similar portraits around his city last week. Kane says it started as a kind of joke.

"There's not a lot of work right now, things are slow, people are inside, so I said, you know, 'offering portraits, family portraits. I'll shoot through the window and I'll stand on the sidewalk. We'll be socially distant,'" Kane said.

"And then sure enough, people are like, 'oh man, let's do it."

Kane soon had dozens of people asking for portraits. Maitland did too, after he posted the idea online.

Maitland takes a portrait from a safe distance. (Submitted by Alistair Maitland)

"There's definitely a demand. People want this," Maitland said.

"This is actually just a fun thing to do, something to break up the days and whatnot. But I also think people are quite aware of the situation that we're living in and want to have themselves documented in this time, with their families."

'Creative documentary'

Kane describes his portraits as "creative documentary" shots of people in their everyday life — and he tries to keep it fun. On one shoot, he directed somebody to sit and gaze out their window, "like the Folgers coffee commercial."

He's not making light of what's happening, though, and he knows that things can quickly change.

"I think once it starts getting serious, or if it does get more serious here, this will probably stop. But yeah, it's super fun right now."

For Maitland, the portraits also have historical value. He feels this is a pivotal moment in his community and that his photos capture a period of transition and adaptation. 

"I'm in a very special position, very special place, where I can use my skills to document our community right now in this time of pandemic," he said.

'There's definitely a demand. People want this,' Maitland said. (Alistair Maitland Photography)

He's been intrigued to hear about people's experiences. One couple he shot had just had an ordeal getting home from Mexico. Another man had a similar tale, and decided to pose wearing a snorkel from his time out of the country.

Maitland hopes to eventually share his portraits more widely with the community, but he's not yet sure how. Don't expect a public exhibition anytime soon.

Maitland says people seem to still be in good spirits, despite the upheaval and uncertainty. He says the people he talks to accept the necessity of social distancing and self-isolation.

"They're just doing it, and taking it in stride," he said. "Their spirits haven't been dampened, you know?"

Written by Paul Tukker, with files from Mike Rudyk and Avery Zingel


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