Karene Isabelle is a photographer based in Montreal North. Her iconic images of Black Women in Health Care were instrumental in changing the discourse on local news and social media about the spread of Covid-19 in that community. We were honoured to get to sit down with her (virtually) to gain some insight into her passion for telling stories through photography.
Yelp MTL: So I guess my first question is, why photography? And how did you get your start in this business?
In high school I was always in the darkroom developing photos, but when it came time to choose a career my family made it really clear that it needed to be a traditional job. So I studied engineering because I wanted to have a job that was challenging and defied stereotypes, engineering students are maybe 10% women. I hated it. But you know, it was sensible and it worked, for a while.
After a few years I was at an engineering job that was not a good fit, and there was a photography class at a local park, right in my neighborhood. So I decided to attend, and I loved it.
When you look back to the people that made a difference in your life, for myself that will include Fabrizio Rosato and Passion Photo Montreal-Nord. He wanted to teach everybody everything that he knew, and he didn’t care what your expertise level was. He just wanted you to love it.
The minute I walked in, he embraced me. And I thought, that’s it, that’s it.
After that, I felt like I was at a crossroads. A friend said to me, if you try to do photography full time and it doesn’t work, what’s the worst that could happen?
I couldn’t find an answer other than: I’ll find another job! So that was it. I started working on a project, and then in March, I decided to really launch under my name.
I had found a photography mentor. His name is Naskademini. I needed somebody to help me navigate through this new photography world. He’s done work for Air Canada, J. Cole, he’s really major, yet he was so welcoming. He asked my opinion. He said: there’s a voice for everybody. You just need to find yours. And he also said there’s no amount of time that certifies that now you’re good. You will launch when you feel ready. Taking those words into account in March I said I’m just going to go ahead and do this. My husband was super encouraging as well. So that’s kind of how it started.
And that was March, and then Covid hit.
Yelp MTL: Can you tell us about how Covid impacted your business?
At first I thought it would be two weeks. I think the first two weeks, everyone was kind of like, Oh, I’ll do some self care. I’ll bake some bread.
Once it became clear that this was going to be the new normal, well I’m not gonna lie to you. I am a little bit of a hypochondriac. I was really nervous. But that’s kind of how the project with the women started. Because I was like: I’m home and I’m afraid and I feel like there’s nothing that I can do. Maybe, maybe I can make a difference somehow.
That’s how the idea of taking the pictures of the women started because I was like, maybe that’s my contribution. And I’ll be honest, I haven’t told anybody that but I thought you know what if I get it, and I don’t survive. At least I’ll have done that.
I live in Montreal North. It was really hit hard, a lot of people here work in healthcare. There are so many black women in healthcare, but I was watching the news and I wasn’t seeing these women.
In my neighborhood there are a lot of people of colour and it felt like they were being blamed for spreading Covid. And I was like, we need to keep perspective as to why some of these people are getting sick, it’s because they’re contributing. A lot of them are sacrificing time with their families. I knew people who were not in touch with their kids because they were working frontlines and were isolated.
And I thought, you know, wouldn’t it be nice to see them and see what they’re having to give up so that we can be taken care of.
That’s the reason I usually do the portrait in two pieces. Because there’s who they are at work, they’re kind of like everyday heroes. But they are also these beautiful women.
And I thought, you know, it’s important to show both sides because it’s easy to superhero somebody to death, right, and it takes away a little bit of their humanity when you do that.
So I started reaching out to the people that I knew were in health care. And then they told other people that they knew. And by the time we got to October people were reaching out to me to say I’ve heard about your project. I want to be included.
And that’s kind of how it’s been since December.
YelpMTL: What have you learned from this about what you want to be doing with your business? What does the dream photo career future look like for you?
Karene: What I love most is telling stories. So there’s a part of me that really wants to do more photojournalism, being able to tell people’s stories.
But interestingly enough, I found that I also really like working with brands. I love working with entrepreneurs who are trying to figure out their brand. There’s a humanity to launching yourself into the unknown.
People pour so much of themselves into whatever they’re creating and I love that. I love telling that story.
Yelp MTL: We are dedicating this month to celebrating some of the amazing Black-owned businesses in Montreal. I wondered if you had any favorite businesses that you want to shout-out?
Armoire by the Montrealer Marcus Troy: https://monarmoire.com/collections/all
The Haitian Restaurant Shandmas on Ontario street: https://www.restaurantshandmas.com/
The Rolling Pop Up which delivers plants directly to people in a pop-up truck!!!: https://www.instagram.com/therollingpopup/
Brown Diva Dolls: They make the cutest black dolls! https://browndivasdolls.com/
Librairies Racines: Great place to get books by BIPOC and Native writers: https://www.instagram.com/racinesmontreal/
Yelp Montreal: Explore Karene Isabelle’s amazing portraits of Black women working on the front lines of the pandemic in Montreal at: