Michael Schmitt has been a photographer in Portland for more than 20 years, though recent weeks have put the commercial shoots that were the bulk of his professional life on hold. But when he saw his son trying to start a conversation with him through the window of their home, he had an idea about how he could use his skills for something particular to our time.
“Seeing the reflection of the outside world, and him being inside, made me go, hey, this is a perfect analogy of what’s going on right now,” Schmitt says. So he began to shoot his neighbors in their homes—while he stays outdoors. “I’m showing people on the inside, and also this reflection of what’s going on on the outside, which is often nothing, a pretty empty environment. And even if it’s not showing a ton of what’s going on inside, it’s showing this barrier that’s in place.”
Those who want to document their shelter-in-place selves can contact Schmitt through his website or on Instagram—payments take place electronically, and he’ll arrange as much as he can by email or phone, particularly given that some of his usual tools are no longer available to him on the shoots.
“I’m having to almost yell to have people hear me, because I’m photographing through people’s windows or through the door,” he says. “A lot of times it’s me showing, using finger-pointing, body language, and gesturing to get people to do what I would normally direct them to do.”
As a photographer and artist, Schmitt’s own altered approach has become as much a part of this moment as the products themselves. “I’m not shaking hands, I’m not having that closer interaction that I always have when I photograph people,” he says. “Like, ‘Hey, can I move that hair out of your face?’ No, I can’t do that.”
Schmitt will be donating half of the fees for his portraits to relief funds for Portland restaurants, bars, and food services workers.
Southwest Portland photographer Mun Li has also been snapping socially distanced shots, teaming up with a downtown florist to offer free front porch photo sessions to customers ordering flowers.
“I’m part of a larger community of photographers all over the world, and we had a discussion about what we can do at this time,’” says Li. “We’re trying to see how can we use our skills to lift people up.”
It started, she says, with just friends and neighbors. “I messaged them and said, ‘Hey, guys, I know this sucks. I’m home, I know you guys are home, you’ve talked about doing family photos but you never have time.” After that, Li says, “It just kinda snowballed.”
Having worked with Geranium Flowers before, she and the owner came up with a plan to help support the business and incentivize potential clients. The idea? The first five people to place orders of more than $100 with the florist would get the option to have their photographs shot by Li.
“I was hoping to shine a little light on the darkness that we’re all facing right now, and helping a small business that has done so much for me,” she says.
Li uses a long lens and is always more than 20 feet away from her subjects—“I don’t want to risk getting people sick or my own family”—and is open to take photographs for others, with or without the flowers. (She can be contacted through her website.) “I’m not charging for any of these,” she says, asking instead that people use whatever they would have paid to help others through this crisis. “Support a local business or donate to the local food bank,” she suggests. “I think this is good for families—to document [this moment], and as they get older share [the photos] with kids and grandkids. And hopefully learn from this.”