Q&A with Leah Hennel's
Photo Essay "Home Alone" a 2023 Photography Winning entry
April 21, 2023
Multiple Applied Arts Photography Award winner Leah Hennel has been working as a photojournalist for many years, most recently documenting the COVID crisis in her hometown Calgary, Alberta. Leah has the ability, more over the humanity, to capture those poignant, truth-telling moments while honouring her subject and their environment. This is photojournalism in its true form.
How did you get into the business?
I was in high school — James Fowler — and one of my Grade 11 options was work experience. So I decided to phone the local daily newspaper and see if I could work in the photo department. I fell in love with the idea of telling stories visually — plus, I'm a naturally curious person. I'd always loved photography ... my mom's subscription to National Geographic had something to do with that. The Calgary Sun said yes, and I was on my way. From there, I enrolled at SAIT and got a two-year photojournalism diploma while still working at the Sun. I then spent 19 years as a staff photographer for the Calgary Herald. Now I freelance for numerous publications such as The Globe and Mail, Getty Images, CBC and The Guardian, to name a few. Photojournalism always appealed to me because it's documenting real life and recording history in real-time.
What is the most difficult piece you worked on? What were the challenges?
Shooting for the Calgary Herald, I was assigned to document the last day of a man, who, because of terminal cancer, decided he wanted to die. Five years ago — as part of MAID (Medical Assistance In Dying) — PJ McGrath and his family allowed me to spend the day with him. I met him at 9 a.m. at the Peter Lougheed Centre and he died at 3:04 p.m. I got a shot of when they wheeled him, in his bed, out onto the hospital's rooftop for his final cigarette, with his family gathered around him. And I also took a photo of him literally taking his last breath as drugs were administered by doctors. To be there when someone takes their last breath is powerful. I wanted to do the story justice, but I also felt immense pressure to give dignity to PJ and his family in the final moments. It was challenging for many reasons because I didn't have that much time with him. Also, it was a very emotional assignment.
What is the project you are most proud of? What was your creative process?
Telling Barbi Harris's story. This Calgary woman was a recovering addict and she did not have secure housing. Much of her money was made picking bottles. I wanted to tell the story of what it was like to be female living on the streets. We hit it off and she gave me full access to her life. Months into the project she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Basically it was a story about how people should die with dignity. And in her own way she taught me so much. I still have the Mother's Day card she gave me. It's in my glove box right now.
My creative process was just going with the flow, immersing myself in someone's life and, hopefully, doing justice to their life.
What advice would you give to those seeking a career in your field?
That's easy — never lose your curiosity. That should be your fuel. When you're telling really tough situations, you can put the subject at ease by showing your humanity. Like my mom always said, be kind.
Photojournalism is a hard field to get into, but, if it's your passion, don't give up. Try to find ways to make it happen.
How has winning Applied Arts Awards impacted your business?
It's always nice to be recognized. It's validation that you're on the right track, although there's lots of work left to do.
Who is your creative hero?
Photographers Margaret Bourke-White and Dorothea Lange
How do you stay inspired?
I stay inspired by working on personal projects, ones that I'm interested in. Selling something isn't my priority. Learning is. I'm always inspired by my peers and what they're doing ... and, by peers, it's a very wide gamut (and not all photographers).
Can you elaborate on your experience of having your pandemic essay "Alone Together" published in book form?
My experience documenting something historic was one of mixed emotions. I wanted to capture Albertans, those who were members of the healthcare team, those who were patients and family, and those who were adapting to life outside of healthcare. I documented what were literally the worst moments of a person's life, and I wanted to portray patients and staff with dignity. It was a very collaborative process with the people I photographed, which is different than other assignments I've done. And it was very emotional because I'm living through a pandemic as well with my family. So this assignment really hit close to home because I couldn't just walk away from it. I chose to do the book in black and white — except for the last photo — because I feel it takes away any distractions of bright colours and allows the viewer to focus more on the content. And I think it gives it a timeless feel. The final photo, in colour, shows Louise Smith celebrating her 98th birthday by Facetiming her friends and family — an optimistic note to end on.
This book includes Leah's commissioned work by the Alberta Health Services as well as her own work as a freelance photojournalist outside of hospitals during Covid.
Alone Together is available for purchase at Rock Mountain Books. Proceeds of the book go to foundations working to help support Alberta Health Services.
Leah, you are definitely on the right track!!! We look forward to seeing what your keen eye captures next.