A man in a baseball cap and sunglasses, recounting how he immigrated from Portugal as a teenager. A woman bundled up against the lightly falling snow, explaining how she became the first person from the Americas to cross the North Atlantic in a rowboat. A single mother of two, opening up about her decision to have children through artificial insemination. And a woman sharing the painful story of her twin sister’s death.
These are just a few of the people that Thibault Carron and Mikaël Theimer have met in recent months. The two friends are the creatives behind Portraits de Montréal, Quebec’s answer to Humans of New York, and they spend their days roaming the city and getting to know complete strangers.
The project began when Thibault and Mikaël realized that their jobs in finance and advertising wouldn’t let them forge the human connections that they craved. Inspired by Humans of New York, and recognizing that there was something special about Montreal’s residents, they decided to quit their jobs and try something new.
Five years and more than 2,100 photos later, Thibault and Mikaël consider themselves storytellers first and photojournalists second. They’re both fairly shy, and they still feel awkward stopping the people of Montreal on the street, but they’ve learned that the best icebreakers are a camera, a big smile, and a willingness to listen.
They’ve also realized that most people are happy to share their stories, if you just give them the chance. But the most important thing that Thibault and Mikaël have learned is that there’s real power in compassion — in kindness, empathy, and open-mindedness.
“Compassion is about putting your own story aside to be able to truly listen and gently encourage the person to tell whatever is on their heart and mind,” Thibault says. “Compassion and cooperation are the things that make us human.”
Portraits de Montréal hasn’t just inspired more compassion in Thibault and Mikaël, though. Over the years, the account’s followers have pitched in and amassed food, medical supplies, and other necessities for people like Fernand, a homeless man whose health was suffering during a hot summer. They’ve paid rent for David and Diamond, a lovable man-and-dog duo who were living on the street after Diamond got sick and David spent all his money on her veterinary bills. In social media comments and in real-life encounters, they’ve gone out of their way to compliment the smile of a woman who had never before let anyone take her photo.
At first, Thibault and Mikaël were astonished to see that the photos they posted online were having an impact in real life. But it makes sense, given that what they’ve started is all about breaking down barriers — including the ones between the virtual world and reality.
The project has grown continually, leading to the 2017 publication of a book that commemorates the photos and stories of Montrealers. And Portraits de Montréal doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. Like Humans of New York, the project proves that people want to get to know their neighbors. They want to be open with each other. They want to listen, and they want to be heard.
In Montreal, and far beyond the city’s borders, it’s time that we showed each other a little more compassion. We can thank Thibault and Mikaël for reminding us how to do that.
All photos courtesy of Portraits de Montréal