Porchraits in isolation capture memories to cherish


Photographer Neil Zeller (pictured) says the Porchraits project is an opportunity to safely give his neighbours something to look forward to amid the anxiety and fear caused by the pandemic. BY KAJONES PHOTOGRAPHY

From the moment he picked up his camera, Calgary photographer Neil Zeller knew “Porchraits” would be a perfect gift to the city he loves.

It began mid-March, just as the global coronavirus pandemic started to make itself felt across Alberta. Almost overnight, millions of citizens found themselves sheltering at home as social-distancing rules took effect and everything from schools, offices and restaurants, to recreation centres, museums and playgrounds shuttered.

Zeller, like countless small business owners and entrepreneurs, watched helplessly as his entire client base collapsed in a single day -- from corporate events and galas, to tourism-related shoots and celebrity portraits.

“Everything and everyone just cancelled,” he recalls.

But Zeller isn’t one to sit around and wait for good things to happen.

It’s why he was determined to bring Porchraits to his urban hometown. The creative initiative, which began in Canada’s northern territories, sees photographers meet with families, couples and individuals outside of their homes, where they undertake a full professional photo shoot -- through windows, from the front porch, driveway, lawn, or apartment balcony -- in strict adherence to the mandated self-distancing rules under the provincial emergency public health order.

For Zeller, it was the perfect opportunity to give his neighbours something to look forward to amid the anxiety and fear caused by the pandemic, while also safely putting his talents to good use.

“It is such a powerful idea,” he says of the project. “The moment I decided to do it, I jumped up and literally ran down the street to photograph some friends.”

Now, more than a month later, Zeller’s pace hasn’t slowed down. He’s photographed more than 350 families in isolation across the city -- with a waiting list of 350 more. Each photo shoot is set up to tell a unique story of what the subjects are experiencing in these uncertain times.

There is often lots of laughter -- “especially when I ask people to show me their family move,” says Zeller. That’s when everyone strikes a particular pose as they look to recreate happier days of family holidays and get togethers.


“Thank you from the absolute bottom of my heart for giving us something that we can look at every day in this absolute madness and can absolutely guarantee will never stop making me smile": Danielle Lyons and family in Calgary. BY NEIL ZELLER PHOTOGRAPHY

There are kids in cowboy pajamas, costumes and princess dresses, and adults in silly onesies, ball gowns, and baseball caps. There are baby bumps and newborns, seniors celebrating decades of marriage, favourite toys and much-loved pets.

Sometimes, there are tears.

Zeller recalls a recent shoot with a couple mourning the death of a child. They’d been told by doctors to keep family and friends close by to help them cope with such an unfathomable loss. But coronavirus has made in-person visits and hugs temporarily impossible, and they were struggling.

They opted to pose with a photograph of their lost child -- the first photo taken since their heartbreak. Everyone cried, Zeller included. Then, they danced as they celebrated happy memories.

“In this COVID crisis where everything is negative, this is about giving people a moment they can cherish for life,” he says

What started as a low-key project a few weeks ago, is now a nation-wide project, with hundreds of photographers from Iqaluit and Battleford, Sask, and beyond, taking part.

Zeller has made it easier for photographers to create their own “porch” moments by granting online access to his ticketing system -- including how he plans his daily photo routes, the sign-up process to coordinate shoots, and messaging with clients.


"Thank you!! Omg we love them, these are absolutely hilarious!!! Can't wait to see your future posts of other families, and we are definitely going to be framing some of these!": Tanya Funk in Calgary. BY NEIL ZELLER PHOTOGRAPHY

Costs associated with the project differ with photographers involved. Zeller suggests a donation of $25, but notes that it is only a suggestion for those who can afford it.

“Anyone,” he stresses, “can sign up for free and they will get the exact same experience.”

In partnership with TELUS, Zeller recently expanded his Porchraits project to showcase local small business owners who remain open for business in the pandemic.

“I’m working very hard to put money back into my local economy to help others who are struggling to make ends meet,” he says of his motivation.

Neil et al, I just want to be clear that I think you have been very responsible in your Porchraits work. One of the things I have learned is that in any crisis there are important stories that need to be told. This work helps accomplish this. #YYC

Let's remember that this is both a viral pandemic and a mental health crisis. Your work helps tell the story of how folks at home are coping with the stress and strain.


Overwhelmingly, public response to the project has been positive. Just this week, Zeller received dozens of messages on Twitter urging him, and other photographers, to continue bringing light to Canadians in a difficult time, while helping to keep people safe.

Tom Sampson, chief of Calgary Emergency Management Agency, is among those who complimented the participating photographers for acting responsibly in their porch photography work, and highlighted the importance of telling important stories in times of crisis.

“Let’s remember that this is both a viral pandemic and a mental health crisis. Your work helps tell the story of how folks at home are coping with the stress and strain,” he wrote on Twitter.

For Zeller, he’ll continue taking photos as long as there is a need.

“This is about creating something good in these crazy days,” he says. “It’s a storytelling moment that is still evolving. We don’t quite know what that story is going to turn out to be, but we know we want to remember it.”