In March 2019, Leah Hennel began working as a staff photographer for Alberta Health Services, leaving behind a full-time position as a photojournalist. Exactly a year into her new job, the world changed. Suddenly, she was documenting the story of a lifetime: tragedies in the ICU, anguished patients and healthcare workers.
Her photos comprise the new collection Alone Together: A Pandemic Photo Essay. The book, which launched on Friday , takes readers from the early days of COVID-19 in March 2020 – drive-through testing sites and PPE-draped paramedics entering homes and shelters and the unknown – through to the sheer joy of those first vaccinations and beyond. There is a lot of devastation, but also hope and even joy, with her photos of outdoor prom and Eid celebrations, drive-in concerts and physically distanced family visits.
As a journalist, Hennel has covered many difficult stories – including the Humboldt Broncos bus tragedy – but to be in hospital, up close witnessing healthcare workers respond to a “code” – a first for her – was next-level. “It gives me goosebumps to watch how they tried to save someone’s life. And it was calm. It was like this mass chaos but calm,” says Hennel, who is 44.
“I think it will stick with me forever.”
Permission was always obtained from the people she photographed, or from their families. “They’ve been through so much and they’ve given me such a gift by saying yes,” she says. Hennel still keeps in touch with some of her subjects.
In one series of photos, Hennel documents Chuck Dover, who was admitted to hospital at age 76, and his wife of nearly 52 years, Dixie.
In another series, Christine Wesley gives birth while ill with COVID-19, and later looks at her newborn, Oscar, via an iPad; they had to be kept apart to keep the baby safe.
A mother herself, Hennel was struck particularly hard by this. She is quick to note, though, that this story is not about her. Still, she went through her own ordeal taking these photos.
To begin with, even before COVID, when she started her AHS job, she knew very little about medicine.
“I photographed my first surgery; I was just hoping I wouldn’t faint,” Hennel says. She cites the Seinfeld episode where Jerry and Kramer drop a Junior Mint into the body of Elaine’s ex-boyfriend while he is in surgery. “All I kept thinking was, ‘what if I drop something or run into something,’ because I’m a huge klutz.”
COVID increased her anxiety. She had to psych herself up to go into the hospital in those early days, and would sit in the parking lot cranking up the tunes in her car before heading inside; Here Comes Your Man by The Pixies became a go-to.
She wore a designated pair of Vans at work with her PPE – her COVID shoes, she called them – and regularly wiped down her camera gear with Lysol. Back home, she would take her clothes off in her garage and head straight for the shower, wanting to protect her son and husband. And herself – she has asthma.
She says as cliché as it may sound, she was most stressed about doing a good job. “Because I had the access, I felt this bigger pressure to make sure I get it right.”
Maybe the hardest thing for her was hearing people allege that the photos of COVID patients were phony. She wanted to shout, “this nurse is not fake, the doctors aren’t fake!”
But there were moments of joy too – like when frontline healthcare workers received their vaccines. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the room,” she says. “I even teared up.” In one photo, a 90-year-old man gets his shot while wearing a party hat.
The book also includes photos Hennel shot as a freelancer for media publications. A shot she took of water polo player Kyra Christmas practicing in a homemade pool made of straw bales for The Globe and Mail won a National Newspaper Award for 2020; a black and white version of the photo appears in this book.
Hennel is donating all of her royalties from this book to AHS. More than the money, though, she feels the photographs have given her a way to contribute in this extraordinary time.
“I feel like all I know how to do is take photos. I can’t do anything else. I wish sometimes that I did know more – like I could help save someone’s life, but I can’t,” she says. “The only thing I have to give to people is just the photos.”
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