The Wilder-Freeman family, photographed by Elliot Sylman in April 2020.
READY FOR THEIR CLOSEUPS – IN TWO WEEKS, SYLMAN HAS SHOT NEARLY 100 FAMILIES
Shutterbug Elliot Sylman takes out his zoom lens to snap families stuck at home during the coronavirus crisis for a captivating professional photo shoot
By Robert Sarner, April 18, 2020
TORONTO – Even at the best of times, Toronto event photographer Elliot Sylman suffers cabin fever badly. Last month, after COVID-19 first robbed him of his livelihood and the government issued strongly-worded directives for Canadians to self-isolate at home, Sylman started to go stir crazy. So, he sought an exemption that would get him out of the house and provide something positive for Torontonians hunkered down indoors.
Sylman decided to use his camera to inject a little cheerfulness into the city’s pandemic-battered reality. In late March, by way of social media and word-of-mouth, he began to offer to photograph portraits of local residents on their front porches — for free — as part of a project, which he named Porch Pics.
Sylman, 53, specializes in shooting bat and bar mitzvahs, weddings and other Jewish community events, all of which have evaporated since mid-March. “I had lots of extra time on my hands because of the coronavirus situation, I’m not good at sitting doing nothing, and it occurred to me that with this project, I could do something nice for people by giving them something to look forward to and have fun with during a difficult time,” Sylman says.
While shooting the first portraits on April 1, some of his subjects offered to pay Sylman for the photos. He declined but soon started telling people that instead they could make a donation to the Reena charity, which provides housing, programs and employment services for people with developmental disabilities within a framework of Jewish culture and values. Sylman chose Reena because he had volunteered his services to them in the past and liked their staff and the work they do.
Today, his project is taking on a life of its own on Facebook and Instagram. The scheduling of bookings is challenging and he often does eight or nine sessions a day. So far, after less than two weeks, he’s shot nearly 100 families.
Recently, only hours before returning home to rejoin his wife and two daughters for the Passover seder, Sylman was busy traversing the city in his white Volkswagen GTI, heading to the homes of families who had booked a photoshoot.
Keeping a safe distance, The Times of Israel joined Sylman at two homes in Toronto’s North York area to see him in action.
At the photo shoot
Sylman arrived at the first house five minutes before the appointed time, as is his custom. He never knocks on the door but waits outside, his professional DSLR camera in hand. Like clockwork, at precisely 11:30 am, the door opened as Jody Freedman and David Steinhouse and their three teenage daughters emerged to greet Sylman. Rarely does he have to call to let the family know he’s waiting.
There’s little pretense of a serious group portrait session, such as those he does in non-pandemic times for $400 (CDN). Amid friendly banter, the Freedman/Steinhouse family stands together on their front porch, posing with and without decorated surgical masks. While the entire process lasts barely five minutes, it clearly provides families a much-welcome break from being cooped up indoors.
“It was a fun experience,” says Freedman, the founder of Simcha Style, an online resource guide for bat and bar mitzvahs. “It gives families a chance to capture a positive, loving memory during a very difficult and stressful time and to put a smile on their faces, even if only for a short time.”
Next, Sylman drove 10 minutes westward to the residence of another Jewish family.
“I only allow myself to be out like this because of the purpose of what I’m doing,” says Sylman. Normally, under current government guidelines, he should be staying at home like other Toronto inhabitants who are not frontline workers.
Sylman has lived all his life in Toronto where he’s been photographing professionally since 1987. “Since what I’m doing is raising funds for the Reena charity and its COVID-19 needs, I’m under the essential services umbrella,” he says.
At the scheduled time, Alanna Weill opens the front door of her two-story house to greet Sylman, who’s standing in the driveway, always complying with physical distancing regulations by maintaining a 10-12-foot gap from his subjects. Weill apologizes, saying her husband and two sons will be ready in a few minutes.
As they pose on the front steps, the children are excited, enjoying the chance to pop out of their confinement. They hold up balloons and a banner in honor of one of their birthdays and later use sporting equipment as props for other shots.
“What an incredible way to capture this unprecedented time,” says Weill, an occupational therapist, who learned about Porch Pics when her friend posted a family shot by Sylman on Facebook.
“I hope our photos will serve as a reminder for my two young sons, so when they look at them in years to come, they’ll see our smiling faces and know that during these difficult and frightening times, they were surrounded with love and happiness,” she says.
Captivating fun for the whole family
Many people turn the picture-taking into a jocose, creative activity of self-expression. They prepare by choosing what to wear, props to hold and sometimes a theme. Sylman has been amused by what some families have done, including brandishing signs, bottles and glasses of wine, pets and packages of toilet paper. Some have worn pajamas, sports uniforms, a tuxedo and evening dress. One person dressed up as a penguin.
“For me, part of what’s so gratifying about doing this is that it seems to bring families together,” says Sylman. “They laugh and joke during this process. Most of them really have a lot of fun. I find when I get to people’s homes, they are often restless. Having them pose for pictures gives them something fun to do and takes their minds off things for a little while. It seems to lighten their mood.”
Not wanting to limit Porch Pics only to those who live in houses, he also includes apartment dwellers, shooting them on their balconies, using a telephoto lens if they live on a high floor.
Early on, Sylman learned that photographers in other cities in North America were doing similar initiatives, shooting so-called “porchtraits” to brighten people’s day and raise funds for charities.
“I know there are other photographers doing the same kind of thing, which I think is great,” says Sylman, whose voice is well suited for radio. “People should do what they can to make this time easier for others, and to make it go by faster.”
Raising morale — and funds
At the end of each day, Sylman chooses his favorite photo from each shoot, emails it to the respective family, and then posts it on Facebook, Instagram and on the Reena website.
“Through his porch project, Elliot is helping raise awareness about our work at an important time,” says Sheila Lampert, Reena’s executive director. “His initiative is also raising urgently-needed funds for our many added expenses due to COVID-19, such as protective personal equipment for our frontline staff.”
Like most people, Sylman is feeling the impact of the pandemic, especially financially. Not only has he lost his sole source of income but his wife was laid off from her job as a treatment coordinator in a dental clinic.
He’s also had to suspend work on a longtime personal project. Over the past 25 years, he’s photographed nearly 450 Holocaust survivors at no charge, hoping to showcase the portraits in a book. Sylman, whose late father was a Holocaust survivor from Poland, last photographed a survivor in early March, just before physical distancing measures took effect.
For now, at a time of such widespread distress and social separation, Sylman is content to continue shooting his porch pics, knowing that sometimes small, simple gestures can bring fleeting joy — and a permanent souvenir.