It’s a time of heightened anxiety, of extra precaution, of unprecedented interruption to the rhythms of daily life. But this crisis is also bringing out the best in people. As the world reacts to the serious threat of COVID-19, Northerners are responding with compassion and creativity to maintain connections with their communities, even as they self-isolate and social distance. We share their stories and more at #SpectacularNWT.
Pat Kane drives down a slight hill leading out of Yellowknife’s School Draw neighbourhood, then past a towering wall of marble-smooth Canadian Shield, before turning off land and onto the Yellowknife Bay ice road. Typically in March, this would mark the beginning of an exhilarating winter day, spent jigging for feisty pike at a tried-and-true fishing hole, or engaged in a competitive game of pond hockey at the scenic outdoor rink in houseboat alley, or dancing away at a fiddle party that goes late into the night at the SnowKing’s castle. At these celebrations, Pat would busy his trained photojournalist eye to capture intimate moments of joy and friendship, as the community marks the end of winter’s longest, darkest days.
"As the world reacts to the serious threat of COVID-19, Northerners are responding with compassion and creativity to maintain connections with their communities."
But this is no normal March. Pat veers off the well-maintained Yellowknife to Dettah ice road and rumbles over a snow-packed route to a friend’s houseboat. He parks his truck, and his friend greets him from the doorway. There’s no handshake or hug. Pat isn’t even welcomed inside. This, at least for now, is the new Northern hospitality—a heartfelt wave from a responsible distance away, following the just-released recommendations by the NWT’s Chief Public Health Officer to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Pat is here to take his friend’s portrait, through his window, to document these strange, stressful times. He makes a few suggestions about where to stand for the best natural lighting, miming them so his friend can understand him through the pane of glass that separates them, and then he starts snapping away. “He’s just kind of gazing out into this world that he wants to be a part of, but he can’t,” Pat says of his friend. “He’s literally trapped inside.”
Pat returns home and posts the photo online, along with a few others he’s taken that day. The feedback is incredible. “People were in love with them,” he says. Immediately, his phone starts buzzing with requests from Yellowknifers asking for their own portraits.
For the next two weeks, this becomes Pat’s life. He visits homes across the city, standing outside and shooting portraits of the people stuck indoors. When he puts the photos online every night, it’s a literal window into life in Yellowknife, allowing residents a brief glimpse at how their friends and family and neighbours are holding up.
The project also gives Pat an opportunity to check in on friends and to meet other Yellowknifers for the first time—despite the physical barrier. “It’s good to hang out with people even if it’s just for a few minutes,” he says. “I went to the place of a couple that I’d never met before and they’re just super happy that someone was coming to do this. I asked them how they’re doing and they’re good and they asked me how I’m doing, so everyone’s just been super friendly. I think everyone’s really just in it together.”
He visited Yellowknife’s SnowKing shortly after the jovial winter monarch’s iconic Yellowknife Bay landmark was closed down early due to a prohibition of public gatherings. Pat took the SnowKing’s portrait from inside his work shack. “He just popped his head through the window and it was interesting to see his workspace and where he spends a lot of his time—especially in March, with the snow castle.”
Pat never told anyone what to do or how to act during the shoots. “I went and did one where it was a little girl’s birthday, so they had little party hats on. That was really cute. People were painting their face sometimes. It really kind of depends on what’s going on in their life and how they want to dress up and be goofy about it, which is fine with me.”
What has he noticed about Yellowknifers? “Everyone wants their pets in their photo.”
One group of roommates posed with their favourite succulents. “It’s fun for people and they’re having a good time,” he says. “Some of them are being silly. Some of them are a little more serious about it, but for me, I’m shooting it from more of a social documentary angle.”
Like everyone else, Pat is adapting to the new reality. This is a time of year when he’d be traveling across the Northwest Territories, photographing life in communities and on the land for national and international publications. “Usually around spring is when a lot of activity happens. There’s a lot more light. It’s warmer. It’s harvest time as well,” he says. “I was supposed to go to Lutsel K’e a couple of weeks ago to follow the Guardian program, where they’re monitoring caribou.” That project was put on hold with the ban on non-essential travel. But Pat’s portrait project is still letting him provide an authentic representation of what life is like in Yellowknife during these uncertain times.
“Usually around spring is when a lot of activity happens. There’s a lot more light. It’s warmer. It’s harvest time as well,”But Pat’s portrait project is still letting him provide an authentic representation of what life is like in Yellowknife."
And the idea has taken off outside of the Northwest Territories. Pat actually had to stop replying to media requests from Canadian and international media due to the volume. He never anticipated the project’s popularity—considering the premise was actually a joke his wife made one night early on in the pandemic lockdown. When Pat posted the idea online, people were into it. “It just kind of snowballed from there,” he says. “Other photojournalists from around Canada that I’m Facebook friends with or that I know were like, ‘This is brilliant. This is the best idea on the planet,’” he says, laughing. Still, he’s enjoyed seeing how people in other places are coping with the pandemic. “It’s bringing a little bit of joy to communities and I think it’s also just capturing a slice of what’s happening right now.”
“Other photojournalists from around Canada that I’m Facebook friends with or that I know were like, ‘This is brilliant.'"
As the COVID response continues to evolve, Pat has chosen to put the porch portraits on hold. (The Professional Photographers of Canada also recently recommended against porch photography sessions, advising people to stay at home.) But the project reminded him once again how tight the bond of community is in the North. Here, he says, the need to connect is strong because physical distancing is so foreign. “It’s funny because people in the south would think we’re so isolated and we’re so alone, that we’re always probably sad and despondent and cold and in the dark, whereas, it’s the total opposite.”
“Especially this time of year, we’re so full of energy. People are out and there’s visits and there’s festivals and all these social activities that it’s actually tough for us to be inside, more than someone in the south, I think.”
All Photos by Pat Kane