Contagious strength

Joy can unify us, says Montreal-based photographer. Her series on Black women in healthcare during covid proved it.

“Do it scared,” Karene-Isabelle Jean-Baptiste tells entrepreneurs. After almost 20 years as an engineer, Montreal-based Jean-Baptiste became a full-time photographer in 2019. She couldn’t have known that covid would hit the world a year later. Nor could she have known that a photography series she “did scared” would get national media attention, launching her new career.

I asked Jean-Baptiste to tell us the story of her series Black Women in Healthcare and the insight it holds for Canada today.

‘They contain multiples’

Mariette Tremblay, 82, was the first to die of covid in Quebec on March 19, 2020. Less than a week later, Quebec announced over 1,000 cases of covid, with almost half of them in Montreal. By May cases were at 50,000. In June, Quebec had over 5,000 covid deaths. That was when the province began, slowly, to allow for limited private gatherings again.

Jean-Baptiste, the mother of a teen and a tween, was spending most of her time at home, anxious. “While I was at home hunkering down, many black women in the healthcare sector did not have that option. They were separated from their families and nervous about work, but they were still showing up and caring for patients. I was not seeing enough of them on the news.”

She started reaching out to healthcare workers she knew personally to ask if she could take their portraits, and “their responses were overwhelmingly positive!”

Jean-Baptiste set up two portraits with each woman; in the first, the healthcare worker is “armoured” in her scrubs and face mask. In the second, she is dressed in an outfit “that made them feel alive and beautiful.” Jean-Baptiste explained that while she was portraying their professionalism, “I also wanted them to be seen as vulnerable and deeply human. I wanted to break up the myth of the Black woman that is always strong and is therefore never in need of tenderness and care. When the time came to take their picture with the outfit they had chosen, a light seemed to turn on in their face that felt like bliss. I was left moved, thrilled and joyful from those meetings – without fail.”

The first portraits were taken in Jean-Baptiste’s backyard, using patterned bedsheets and flowers to keep the background interesting. Each session started with a conversation; Jean-Baptiste asked the women how they were doing. “Despite the difficult circumstances they could always name these pockets of joy: something new they had discovered about themselves, about their patients or some support they had found in their family. That was incredibly moving for me.”

And the women were doing difficult work. Donna Austin, a respiratory therapist, would eventually intubate triple the normal number of patients. “She has spoken of the trauma she felt in seeing so many sick patients at once,” Jean-Baptiste said.

Solange Déjean, a patient attendant, was waking up at 4 a.m. to get to the long-term health-care facility where she worked, grappling with her own grief at losing so many patients.

Sandra Osman, a grade school social worker, was instead reuniting patients in long-term health care facilities with their families.

Karine Severin left retirement in response to the need for healthcare professionals in more rural areas of Quebec.

Jean-Baptiste’s portraits show a dental hygienist, a nursing manager, an anesthesiologist, social workers and nurses. What did these women want to communicate through their portraits? I asked. “They wanted other Canadians to know that they are present, that they matter, that they contribute to their society. It’s why I wanted them to come from various fields in Healthcare, I wanted them to be seen as decision-makers, as creators as well as carers.”

On June 16, 2020, Jean-Baptiste shared the first portrait on Instagram. A friend with a contact in the media shared her project, and the series aired on national television. Other media outlets began approaching Jean-Baptiste. The women in her portraits were just as amazed at the response as Jean-Baptiste: “They were grateful for feeling seen.”

building together

Jean-Baptiste knows the feeling of being “both hyper visible and invisible at the same time.” She explained: “As a Black woman engineer, I was a minority within a minority. When I was studying, approximately 10 percent of engineers were women. For context, Black people in Quebec represent about four percent of the population. I was rare!”

When Quebec was established as a colony of New France in 1608, the Catholic church essentially ran the province. When the Quiet Revolution began in 1960, the faith that defined Quebec’s identity, values and survival was questioned and then abandoned. Language became Quebec’s new mark of distinctiveness and identity. Today, Quebec is ultra focused on the English-French language divide, so focused that they can be blind to their own multi-ethnic reality.

“Growing up, many of us felt invisible and like our contributions were not acknowledged,” said Jean-Baptiste. “Yet when it comes to policing we feel over-represented!” Immigrants contribute a lot to Quebec. For one thing, immigrants often arrive with higher levels of schooling than their Quebec agemates. The Quebec government in 2006 noted that 22 percent of Congolese immigrants (the highest population of Francophone Africans in Quebec) held university degrees, compared to 16 percent of the Quebec population.

Marjolaine Merisier, whose portrait is in the “Black Women in Healthcare” series, had been a nurse for four years when covid began. She volunteered to switch to the ICU. “When you look at the health-care system here in Montreal, the Black community is very well established in the medical care system,” Merisier told CTV. “We are everywhere as nurses, as respiratory technicians or even social workers. We are everywhere, and being a part of this project, it shows a different side of COVID-19.”

And yet that isn’t the story represented on the news, Jean-Baptiste noted. “When people did talk about Black healthcare workers, it was always about the ones who had an irregular immigration status or who had precarious job situations.”

Her portraits are about more than 2020. “These women need to be remembered and go down in history for their contribution to this extraordinary time in Canadian life. We are all building this nation together and everyone’s story matters. We come into contact with one another in a myriad of ways and those connections make us stronger as a people.”

Dr. Eding Mvilongo Anesthesiologist.
Though both her parents fell ill with covid, she continued to work and care for all her sick patients.

‘Une image vaut mille mots’

Jean-Baptiste left her career as an engineer because she believed that she could make a difference in the world through photography. “It could help me shed light on the world around me and give a voice to people that I felt were not heard and seen enough.”

She went on to intern in photojournalism with La Presse (and continues to do freelance work for them), and has won multiple awards every year of her photography career. Her work has been featured in national and international newspapers and magazines, and she has taught children photography. Currently she’s working on a project around Haitian immigration to Quebec, with the help of a grant from Black Women Photographers, a group that has supported and encouraged Jean-Baptiste in her career.

“Photography is essential in understanding our world. Before photography, newspapers drew images so that readers could get a sense of a situation. The saying in French: Une image vaut mille mots (‘a picture is worth a thousand words’) says it all. We are conditioned as human beings to react to the expressions on a person’s face, to feel transported to a place based on what we see. Photography in journalism gives a bridge to people who may struggle with words. It is an additional support for the reader to connect with the work.”

In 2020, Jean-Baptiste’s series of Black Women in Healthcare gave a face to the best that Canada displayed during the pandemic: contagious strength and courageous joy. Today, our nation is falling into division. What would you say to Canadians now? I asked. Her answer is the same now as then: look for the joy. It’s joy that can unify us, Jean-Baptiste believes. We can all find it in our stories. “It is in the sunlight that hits our kitchen counter just right, it’s in the smell of rain, it’s in the laughter you might share with a stranger at the supermarket. Joy is big but it can also be tiny. We just have to keep an eye out for it.”

inspiring images

Jean-Baptiste shared two images that have helped her understand the world. The first is “Nuit de Noël” by Malick Sidibé, a photo of two dancers. “It reminds me that photography captures a moment in time and if we are lucky we get to revisit it at our leisure.” The second is “Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange, taken during the U.S. depression of the 1920’s. “Her face holds so many stories at once.”


  • Maaike VanderMeer

    Maaike first appeared in CC's pages as a teenage writer from Ontario. Fast forward almost a decade later (and relocate to a land-based fish farm in southern British Columbia), and Maaike stepped in as CC's assistant editor for a year in 2021. Now she serves as Art and Development Manager. She is intrigued by the symbiotic relationship between hope-oriented journalism and the arts, and the place it has in CC's pages. Her degree is in Intercultural Service and World Arts and she creates original watercolours and graphics for CC (proving that work can be fun). You can follow more of Maaike's visual experiments on Instagram @maai_abrokentulip

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