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New book by Calgary photojournalist Leah Hennel charts the COVID crisis from the front lines

In her new book, Alone Together, photojournalist Leah Hennel takes readers inside Calgary hospitals for an intimate look at how the COVID-19 pandemic affected doctors, nurses, patients and families.

An accomplished award-winning photojournalist who spent over a decade at the Calgary Herald, now a staff photographer with Alberta Health Services, Hennel was granted access to hospitals which were otherwise off-limits to most people. She said almost immediately after the pandemic was declared in 2020 she saw the need for it to be accurately recorded.

"That's what I do is visual storytelling, documentary, photojournalism. I just knew it needed to be documented," she said.

While she’s photographed emotionally difficult subjects before, Hennel says covering the pandemic from the inside was the most challenging assignment of her career.

"This has changed me as a photojournalist forever, " she said. "I'll never be the same, good or bad. It's hard being there when someone's suffering, watching the staff, the amazing health care staff, deal with their emotions. It's hard.

"It's hard when you see a doctor you think wouldn't show their emotions crying."

"It's scarring," she added, "and I think I'm still processing that. I think I still have to deal with some of the emotions of photographing people in their last moments and seeing that. It's changed me for the better."


On Tuesday Hennel was delivering was delivering copies of the book to Dixie Dover, whose husband Chuck died of COVID-19 March 4, 2021.

Both Chuck and Dixie agreed to let Hennel photograph their COVID-19 journey at the Peter Lougheed hospital. Dixie, who made the hard decision to take her husband of over 50 years off life support, says seeing the pictures helps her deal with his loss.

"When I made the choice to take them off life support, we had discussed it many times. We'd both decided we didn't want to be kept alive, just to be kept alive," said Dover. "When I feel bad, I go and look at the pictures and realize that I did make the right choice because I kept thinking he's improving. He wasn't improving. I was kidding myself. But looking at the pictures, I can see that now, and it's easier that I made the choice."

Every person pictured in the book consented to be photographed before Hennel turned her lens on them.

"I've been doing this for over 20 years," Hennel said. "It never gets easier. How do you approach someone at their worst moment? The only thing I could do is I'm just honest and upfront."

As well, in a practice not followed by many photojournalists, Hennel showed the subjects the pictures prior to publication.

"It's more of a collaboration. I explained to them what I'm doing, why I'm doing it, where the photos are going to go."


Hennel’s book also highlights the heroic efforts of many of the front line workers in hospitals, from the environmental maintenance workers to nurses and doctors struggling to save lives. In one dramatic image Hennel captured ICU nurse Mia Torres performing CPR on a patient whose heart had stopped.

ICU nurse Mia Torres photographed by Leah Hennel

"I didn't even know that she was there half the time, and then, just to see the pictures that she produced was really great, because it was actually real life in the moment," said Torres. "She did it justice. She went out of her way to produce such amazing art, and at the same time was very realistic in what she was intending to do. And I think she captured the harsh reality of what life was inside the hospital."

Not every image in Alone Together is one of crisis and despair. Hennel stepped outside hospitals to photograph a drive-by graduation at Mount Royal University, and caught up with Muriel Charlebois, a teenager painting a mural of hope on the walls of a Calgary vaccination centre.

Grade 9 student Muriel Charlebois painting a mural of hope at a Calgary vaccination centre

Hennel then followed Charlebois as she received her first vaccination while wearing her grade nine graduation dress.

“I've never experienced anything like it because it seems like such a simple thing or like almost a task that you don't want to do getting vaccinated. It seems so weird, but it meant so much more than that," said Charlebois.

"It was more freedom and having something to look forward to again and knowing that things were getting better after being rough for such a long time."

Muriel’s mother Karen Thomas says having Hennel there to document both the mural and Muriel's vaccination added to the importance of the events.

"The way Leah works, there's, there's a stillness there and a kindness. And there's always a hint of fun with Leah," said Thomas.

"It really is a record of this unprecedented kind of time of our lives. It's just an honour for Muriel to be in there, and for Leah to have taken her picture."

In reflecting on the unprecedented physical and mental toll the past two years have had on society, and especially those involved in health care, Hennel says creating Alone Together also helped her deal with the pandemic.

"I really care about people, and I like listening to people's stories. That helps me in my mental health-listening to other people's stories."

Alone Together is available both in bookstores and online. 100 per cent of the proceeds from sales of the book go to the foundations supporting the work of Alberta Health Services.

"I now know," Hennel said, "what it truly is like for someone working on the first one on the front lines." Top Stories

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