Say cheese! Families commemorate their isolation with ‘porchraits’

Why We Wrote This

One of the surprising ironies of the social distancing era is that this time of isolation is fostering other kinds of togetherness. Canadian photographers are capturing that duality with “porchraits.” 

Courtesy of Erik McRitchie
Calgary photographer Erik McRitchie says families have used humor in their "porchraits," in this case hooking toilet paper rolls around their wrists.

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A new phenomenon is sweeping the photography community in Canada: “porchraits.” These family portraits, often taken on porches, are one way of marking the physical isolation that many are feeling right now. But they also highlight a renewed embrace of togetherness felt by many families.

“People are together in a way they haven’t been in a long time,” says Erik McRitchie, a brand photographer in Calgary, Alberta.

Mr. McRitchie is part of a network of photographers using the hashtag #porchraits to inspire one another to get out and document their communities. Many of the images are whimsical, poking fun where they can. One family poses on their porch with rolls of toilet paper around their wrists. Other photos are more stark, revealing the stillness and solitude of the social distance era. 

By sharing these images on social media, Mr. McRitchie hopes his work can serve as a buoy for others stuck at home. “When we see people are celebrating, laughing and having fun, and families that are together,” he says, “it's reminding us of the strength we can find together.”

The children’s hands push into the glass pane as the family of five poses behind their front door. In some photos, family members peer over their fences, only their eyes visible. Many of the portraits play on space and distance – each member hangs a head out of a separate second-story window, for example.

Welcome to a new phenomenon sweeping the photography community in Canada: “porchraits.” These family portraits, often taken on porches, are one way of marking the physical isolation that many are feeling right now. But they also highlight a renewed embrace of togetherness felt by many families.

“We’re living through a unique period of time for all of us,” says Erik McRitchie, a brand photographer in Calgary, Alberta. “People are together in a way they haven’t been in a long time.” 

That’s something families are keen to hold onto, judging by Mr. McRitchie’s busy calendar. At the middle of last week he had done 25 shoots and had 40 more to go.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Mr. McRitchie is part of a network of photographers inspired by one in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, who started taking photos of residents through their windows. Using the hashtag #porchraits, photographers have inspired one another to get out and document their communities. And the practice has started to pop up in the United States; though there’s a bit of debate over how to spell the new term and they are sometimes called #doortraits or #isolationportraits.

Courtesy of Erik McRitchie
A little girl celebrates her fifth birthday on her porch as part of a family portrait session with Calgary photographer Erik McRitchie.

Many of the images are whimsical, poking fun where they can. One family poses on their porch with rolls of toilet paper around their wrists; even the dog gets one around its paw. Others dress up in costumes or party attire, taking a break from the stress and worry that the coronavirus pandemic has unleashed around the world. 

Other photos are more stark, revealing the stillness and solitude of the social-distance era. And even today, in the midst of it, it’s easy to see that these collections, growing across North America and Europe, could easily hang on museum walls the way exhibits of stoic settlers of the Dust Bowl or cities in the Great Depression do a century later.

“These are really interesting documents at this time,” says Carol Payne, a professor of the history and theory of photography at Carleton University in Ottawa. While many of the journalistic photographs of the era revolve around barriers – adults separated from elderly parents in nursing homes, or isolated healthcare workers who can only see their children through windows – “porchraits” give subjects a sense of agency, she says, and in the end will show how ordinary people coped together.

“They are telling their future selves what it was like to live through what is really an historic crisis,” Professor Payne says. “People are writing their own social histories visually, not the history of politicians and nation-states but the history of individual people and how they got through it.”

Many of the photographers, like Mr. McRitchie, aren’t making money from it. If families can, he is encouraging them to donate to a local food bank. “It’s really just trying to take a moment of difficulty, and turning it into something positive,” he says, “and see if it can be replicated and grown into something bigger.”

Jon Neufeld’s family is the one outside the glass door last week in their residential community in Calgary. He says they were “hamming it up,” just having a bit of fun about being stuck inside all day. It also happened to be the day they were supposed to have their daughter’s 5th birthday party. Instead, she dressed up in pink and they ate birthday cake on the front steps (Mr. McRitchie was invited, one of four “front porch birthday parties” he’d celebrated that week). 

Mr. Neufeld says it’s been fun to see the other portraits posted around social media. But collectively it tells a deeper tale. “The kind of struggle is implicit in the fact that if you look through the collection, we’re all on our porches. We’re all on the front steps of our houses,” he says, “where we are spending 99% of our time.”

That’s posed technical problems for photographers, who are more used to scenic backgrounds or studios where lighting possibilities are limitless. But through this work, Mr. McRitchie says he has documented something new: a family togetherness and a return to slower living. When he arrived at one house, two little children were sitting at their front window with a “campfire” they made from cardboard. They were pretending to roast marshmallows.

In between his shoots he’s noticed more teens out walking with their parents.

“That’s weird, right?” he says. “Before, mom or dad would go for a walk, and ask, ‘you guys want to come?’ And the kids are like, ‘no, not a chance.’ But now they’re out together.”

“It’s just so easy to be occupied with the negativity right now, and any break from that in a positive way is uplifting,” he continues. “When we see people are celebrating, laughing and having fun, and families that are together, it’s reminding us of the strength we can find together.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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