Photographer Karen McKinnon is not only one of the Comox Valley’s most-beloved residents; she’s also one of our community’s most generous and vital contributors.
As a perfect example of how diverse philanthropy can be, Karen gives back to various local not-for-profits with her talent rather than her wallet, and as one of Vancouver Island’s foremost award-winning photographers, her contributions have proven to be both exceptional and invaluable.
She has volunteered for St. Joseph’s Hospital Foundation (now Comox Valley Healthcare Foundation) for nearly 10 years, You Are Not Alone (YANA) for over 12 years, as well the Care-a-Van, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep and the Comox Valley Youth Music Centre – just to name a few.
So why, as a busy mom and career woman, does she feel the need to donate so much of her time and skills to the community?
“I think there are two reasons,” Karen answered, “One, I’ve given a lot of thought in my life to what success is, and for me probably the number-one definition of success is contribution. The second reason is learning. Every time I get the opportunity to contribute with my camera, I learn about people, and the main thing that inspires me in photography is connection. I love the camera, I love taking pictures but I love connection.”
“To me, I’m very lucky to live a life that’s full of purpose and full of connections, but just doing the work I do, which is valuable, and not volunteering my talent as well would leave me empty. I know that.”
Karen grew up mostly in Vancouver, but didn’t come into photography until later in life. The building blocks of the profession were all around her in her youth. Her mother was a professional nature photographer, so as a teenager Karen was often surrounded by some of Canada’s foremost nature photographers. She didn’t consider photography as a career then, but she saw the joy it brought to her mother and how it presented itself as a ticket to other worlds.
Originally she went to school to become a dietician, a calculus instructor or a recreation leader, but a tragedy threw a wrench in her spokes and in her grief, Karen dropped out of school and got a job bartending. It was while she was bartending that she linked her love of music and photography, and started shooting bands. That’s when she decided to become a photographer and began her apprenticeship in Vancouver under one of the city’s foremost commercial photographers.
The rest was history.
Fifteen years ago Karen left the big city to settle in the Comox Valley. Right away she immersed herself in the little community, getting to know the colourful people and organizations that the Valley has to offer and, in return, offering her own unique gifts to the Valley through photography.
Her photography uses a mix of her background in nature, commercial and portrait photography. Add in a dash of photojournalism and a splash of Karen and you get McKinnon Photography, a multi-award winning business.
On a local and personal level, Karen says that photographing healthcare has brought her a lot of joy and purpose, mostly because of a life full of experiences that have focused around it as a patient, as a visitor and even a Candy Striper.
“One of the ways I have found to give back that’s been a good fit is around healthcare. I really see the hospital as an integral part of our community, and this hospital St. Joe’s has been a place of safety for me and my family,” she said. “My family has used this hospital a lot, more than the average family. What I found really unique being from the city is when I’d come here, the people working are my clients, my neighbours, or the patient in the bed next to you is maybe one of your children’s teachers. It’s an illustration of how this community takes care of each other.”
“I’m in my forties now. Some of us came here to have our kids, and now we see it as a place where our parents are receiving care. St. Joseph’s is one of our community’s biggest employers, it’s where we go to feel safe, it’s where we go when we feel unsafe, and where we go to get healing.”
Karen first volunteered her services at St. Joseph’s in 2008, when she did photos for the (then) St. Joseph’s Hospital Foundation to use in fundraising campaigns and marketing like the Caring Spirit program. In 2016 she was welcomed back by the Foundation, under its new name, and helped the Foundation with its transition into Comox Valley Healthcare Foundation with all new sets of photos all over the hospital and The Views, St. Joseph’s residential care facility.
These countless hours volunteered for the Foundation are worth many thousands of dollars, not to mention the donations her photos have inspired people to make over the years. Her photographs are often warm and engaging, showing connection between patient and staff, mother and child or resident and caretaker. They make an impact, because Karen’s artistic “eye” tends to focus on the special connections and relationships built at the hospital.
“I get excited because I notice relationships, so when I’m there and shooting in The Views, I notice the care of the staff. I know I’m working for the Foundation and everyone there is so passionate about providing to the patients, to fulfill a need, so that’s what I see. That is almost all I see, and usually we’re having fun and the people I shoot are full of joy.”
“I’m also reminded how easy it is to find things in common with people. Working in the hospital you’re seeing people often at their worst, and you can still connect as one human to another. I see how easy it is to make a difference and I’m also reminded how easy it is to try to find things in common with others.”
Karen added that taking photos in the hospital gives her a lot of gratitude in life, and feeds her desire to do more for others. She hopes that others out there can look at their own personal skill sets and ask themselves, “What can I do to help?”, like she did with YANA, the Care-a-Van and other community organizations.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize how easy it is to contribute,” she said. “There are so many people with unique skillsets and there are ways we can contribute. Some people can’t donate by going to events or by giving monetary donations, or they don’t want to sit on boards or want a volunteer shift. It doesn’t mean there’s not a way to contribute, and I feel it’s important to give in ways that are meaningful to you. You’ll be more effective.”
“Volunteering is a great way to learn, to dip your toes into a new skillset or celebrate one that you already have.”
No matter how busy she gets, Karen doesn’t plan on slowing down her giving ways any time soon. That’s because if she stops, she gets what she calls “itchy,” feeling a need to do something with purpose.
It’s who she is – that’s Karen – and she’s finding out that by default, her philanthropic personality has begun to not only inspire change in others, but to change her as well.
“It’s added to the layer of gratitude I already carry. I’ve had fun and I’ve learned, and volunteering has helped me learn that I’m more capable than I thought I was; feeling that I have something of value to offer the world, and I think we all want to feel valued and purposed.”
“I’m growing,” she added. “It’s not thinking about getting something back – it’s to grow myself, and it’s a part of my core values. That’s who I am as a person, that’s a part of my definition of success.”
“Right now in my life I’m really content, but itchy. Always.”
Special thanks to Karen McKinnon, for all that you do, and for being you. Visit McKinnon Photography’s website, here.