The Secret to Travel is in the Mind, not the Location
Interview with Mikaël Themier – Co-Founder of ‘Portraits of Montreal’
Mikaël Themier speaking at TEDx Concordia.
Portraits of Montreal’ is the Canadian version of ‘Humans of New York’, and has received immense praise over the past few years. The initiative has been featured on most of the major publications in Quebec including MTL Blog, La Presse, and Le Journal de Montréal. It was founded by Thibault Carron and Mikaël Themier, with the objective to create a refreshing and inspiring project in their city.
Through his work, Mikaël travels the world without ever leaving his city, and today I wanted feature an interview to learn about how he started his initiatives, what he learned from it, and how he has traveled the world without ever leaving his city.
Interview with Mikaël Themier
To begin, can you tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m 29 years old based out of Montreal. After growing up in a privileged neighborhood in Paris, I decided to leave this city to go study and work in marketing in Montreal. Growing up I was always curious and very open minded, so I felt different from everyone else that surrounded me. This is why I decided to leave that bubble and come to Montreal.
I started on the regular path, found a job in advertising, and worked there for about 2 years. The entire time I would get these really creative and awesome ideas, but never had the time to bring them to life! So I would write them down on a piece of paper. I felt locked in. One day, as I was writing down an idea on a piece of paper, I decided enough was enough, and quit my job.
I immediately went out to buy a camera, and started taking pictures of people and moments. This was the beginning of Portraits of Montreal. Over the past year I was following humans of new york, and felt that there needed to be something similar in a city like Montreal.
‘Sometimes I feel like everyone around me is on a train to build their life, to get that car and that house and those gadgets. And I am on the station’s platform, just watching this train wiz by. I constantly have to remind myself that it’s ok not to be on the train, because it’s destination is not where I want to go.’ – Mikaël Themier
Two years ago, you decided to leave everything behind and start ´Portraits of Montreal’. Would you say Humans of New York was the main inspiration for that?
Yes in the beginning thats where the idea originated from. But what really got the idea going was this same feeling – or energy maybe – of not belonging, of not feeling fulfilled. So I went for it and every single day I would go out and take pictures of people on the streets.
In your TEDx Concordia talk you mention you met many people from all religions and cultural backgrounds. Did any of your meetings make you feel like you were traveling the world in your own city?
Just last week, I went to Parc Extension and went there specifically to meet Sikhs from the community. Four of them were sitting on a bench, so I asked to take a picture and they offered me to join them on their small bench. All 5 of us stayed seated and began talking about all types of things. For the next hour, I was in India.
This actually makes me think about something I want to show you. (Mikaël leaves and picks up a book). Here is another great representation about how you can travel in your own city. This is ‘Aime Comme Montreal’ which is 60 pictures of intercultural couples right here in Montreal.
Are there any major themes that keep coming back as you continue your journey?
Im kind of biased because I mostly focus on underprivileged communities. First because of curiosity. Second because of the unfairness. So something that comes out more often than I expected when I speak to these communities is violence in the family. That was really surprising. I’d even say it’s the terrible surprise of Portraits of Montreal. But it’s not all bad, on the contrary most stories I hear are surprising in very positive ways as well.
You met 100s of interesting people, can you share with us one of the most surprising or eye opening encounters you ever experienced? What did you learn from them?
Every time someone asks me this question I have a difference response. I’d say it’s the person I met yesterday. He had this crazy tattoo around his eye that looks like a pirate patch. He honestly looked scary, with the piercings and black tattoo sleeve going all the way to the fingertips. I expected him to be rough around the edges, but it was actually the exact opposite. He had this warm happy excited energy. As a 36 year old man, he was going back to school to become an engineer. His dream was to get a house with a tree. The tree was most important as it was a symbol of stability. His entire life he had never lived in the same place for more than a few years, and never had the same friends for more than 5 years. Even in his family things weren’t stable, so that tree was his dream. A dream of living a stable life, and the tree remaining long after he was gone.
So I guess you could say this was another proof that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover?
Yes, and even more than that, I’d say it’s about breaking down the prejudice. No more prejudice about religion, about ideals, about race… Let’s just break it all down.
If I understood correctly, we could say the idea of the Portraits of Montreal is to help everyone see the humanity in people, rather than seeing them as strangers? To build empathy?
I guess empathy is really the key word here. We want to make people as concerned about others as they are about themselves.
I guess empathy is really the key word here. – Mikaël Themier
I saw that you started a crowdfunding campaign to help someone you met get off the street. Is this something you do often?
Not as often as I would like! What we did with David we haven’t been able to do again at that level. However we do have small wins here and there. In the end of 2015, I met Normand, who really needed a job and was actually craving to work. He didn’t know how to read or write, and people didn’t think he looked trustworthy to give him work. He was a handyman so we put an ad on Portraits of Montreal. More than 10 people responded with renovation jobs, which got him working again and finding new clients through that. That felt really great.
Another subject I am more and more passionate about is the lack of services for handicapped people in the public transportation sector. Right now its a horrible situation. More than half the buses aren’t accessible, and same goes for the metro stations. So if you can’t get to where you need to get, you have to call STM 24hr in advance and often it will be up to 30 minutes late. People don’t seem to care about the handicapped. So I did a rant on Facebook about how I was stuck for hours with my handicapped friend I met through Portraits of Montreal. It was picked up by Journal de Montreal, and just yesterday the director of the services department got in contact with me to apologize and promise it won’t happen again to my friend. I’d say there’s still a lot of work to do.
You now have 10s of thousands of followers, are there any tips you would give to people who are interested in doing something similar?
Just get out there and do it!! It’s kind of difficult for me to give advice on this because I come from a privileged background so it’s not the same for those who don’t have support.
I guess we could you say you have a safety net.
Exactly, not anybody has that privilege or luxury but everyone can start with small steps. Even those with money often times don’t step out of their comfort zone and follow their passion. For example I have a friend who rather than quitting the job he hated so much, he insisted on staying to “build his career”. He finally made the jump, and became very happy almost immediately!
People are afraid of the jump. But honestly the jump is so easy. I felt so good when I finally did it. I felt like a world of opportunity had just opened up. You just have to do it!! And if you can’t because of your life situation, then at least make small steps towards your goal. Work nights and weekend. If you put the effort it will grow.
One thing is for sure, you also have to work hard. There’s no secret, just a lot of hard work. Since quitting, I’d say I have worked every single day. But I love it, so it’s not really work. I can’t really explain it; I work all the time, but I also am always on vacation.
You seem like a really motivated guy. What are some of your main projects for 2017?
We are working on the Portraits of Montreal book which will come out in spring. But other than that no plans really. I think that I always like to keep the doors open for new opportunities, so I usually don’t like to plan too far in advance!
To finish off this interview, I wanted to ask you, do you believe that your perception of Montreal has drastically changed after meeting so many people and hearing their stories?
No not at all. I’ve never been a prejudiced guy so I wouldn’t say I had a specific perspective that was shattered. But what I can say is that I know Montreal much better now. And its people.
What has really changed is my relationship with people and with society. Every thing I do now I am more conscious. For example I became vegetarian, and then vegan. My perspective on world issues also changed. My view on the refuge crisis view is very different than that of most people who only see their side of the problem in France or here in Canada. Even if they are so far away I better understand them. I feel more empathic because I understand where they are coming from and how hard it is for them.
On another note I’d say I now feel much more confident of approaching anyone on the street. If I have a question for someone, I can honestly go up to them, start a conversation, and ask my burning question. It’s easy, because I have my camera as an ice breaker. If you want to meet people, find your own ice breaker, and you will be able to talk to anyone you want.
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