What do you do when isolating at home with your family? Document life with a photo, perhaps? The idea has caught on through the hashtag #porchtraits, with photographers from Calgary, Edmonton and beyond using their skills to create digital portraits of seniors and families in front of their homes. In Calgary, photographer Neil Zeller has already racked up about 120 sessions (some 10-15 each day) of city residents on their porch or in front of their garage who want to record the moment and have a fun break from the pervading gloominess and fear.
Zeller said the project felt like a natural move for him, after seeing his business drop in a flash at the start of the COVID-19 emergency. With corporate events, weddings and grads cancelled, business for he and so many other self-employed artists has been drastically affected.
“I saw posts on social media talking about self-isolating, so I thought 'well, everyone has time right now and they’re at home together'. People are really responding," said Zeller, adding that some groups wear their pajamas or sweat pants, while others don their Sunday best. "The session itself is an exciting moment in what can otherwise be a depressing time.”
In Edmonton, photographer Jeff Woodward has done a handful of porchtraits in the free time he has outside of his day job. The former documentary film maker said he's used to engaging with the world through a lens, so capturing people at this time isn't a hard ask. "We're in the most photographed age in history--everyone has a phone for selfies etc. But this is way to document the time in a more formal way," Woodward said. "I see this as my way to interact with the world and contribute."
Woodward knows this may be a short-lived, if meaningful project. He isn't charging a fee for his portraits, asking clients instead to make a donation to the city's Free Footie soccer program or Edmonton's Food Bank.
A recently-released survey by abacusdata.ca shows that 75% of Canadian citizens report feeling anxious and 37% feel lonely because of COVID-19. Zeller said that makes it all the more meaningful to offer 15-minutes of care-free fun to fellow Calgarians.
“It’s a troubling time, with people worrying about how they’ll pay their rent and bills, so hopefully I’m helping spread some joy in the community,” Zeller said.
Zeller said that while there’s often a waiting list, he works fast and is regularly opening more dates for porchtraits. For a suggested $25 donation, Zeller arranges a time with a client and meets them on the sidewalk outside their home. Nothing is posed, and people can wear what they want during a quick, 10-15-minute session. Then the photographer and camera (with a long tele-photo lens) are on their way, with clients able to view and receive their photos by the next day.
“I keep an exceptionally long social distance. I did 20 sessions on Saturday, with pets coming up to me, but I never touched any of them,” Zeller said, adding that everything is done online, including photo delivery.
"We're all in this together--even when we're keeping two metres apart. As long as people want me to keep doing these photos, I'll do it," added Zeller.