Photojournalist Leah Hennel
"I'd describe my work as slice of life"
Interview: Nezih Tavlas / December 15, 2021
(Courtesy of Leah Hennel)
Photojournalism News: What drew you to photojournalism?
Leah Hennel: I was in high school — James Fowler in Calgary — and one of my Grade 11 options was work experience. So I decided to phone the local daily newspaper and see if I could help in the photo department. I'd always loved photography ... my mom's subscription to National Geographic had something to do with that. The Calgary Sun said yes and, while there, I met the person who would become my mentor — Mike Drew. From there, I enrolled at SAIT and got a two-year photojournalism diploma, while still working at the Sun.
Photojournalism always appealed to me because it's documenting real life and recording history in real time.
Photojournalism News: What equipment do you use? Do you have a favourite lens/camera?
Leah Hennel: I've always used Canon cameras. My first one, in 1996, was Canon AE1. A film camera, of course. At the moment my favourite camera is the mirror-less Canon R5. The lens I rely on a lot is a 35-mm 1.4.
Photojournalism News: What social media platforms do you use?
Photojournalism News: How do you prepare yourself before any assignment? What would you put in your camera bag for a typical task?
Leah Hennel: I try to do as much research as possible ahead of time. And for many of the assignments, before shooting a single frame, I've already made contact personally with subjects. The level of trust does matter. But sometimes you can get called an hour — or less — before the assignment and, at that point, I just rely on my instinct and years of experience to see me through.
In my bag, there are two camera bodies, telephoto and wide-angle lenses, flash, extra batteries, memory cards, laptop (if I need to file remotely) — but rarely are assignments typical. You need to read the room. Sometimes, such as when I'm taking photos at a Hutterite colony, I need to travel as lightly as possible. And in sensitive situations, such as when I'm documenting COVID in hospitals, bringing one camera and one lens is less intrusive, which helps put the subjects at ease. It also makes me think more about composition because I have less gear to work with.
Photojournalism News: How would you best describe your style of work? What are you trying to say with your photography?
Leah Hennel: Story telling. Daily life and natural settings and authentic moments, even if they are — especially if they are — deeply personal moments. Such as the aftermath of trauma. I'd definitely describe my work as slice of life. I try to capture those quiet moments behind the scenes — that's where the authenticity is. Human emotions and human interactions are compelling. I just want my photos to show a truthful and unvarnished moment.
With compassion, I try to show how others live, then maybe there'll be less judgment.
Photojournalism News: How many photos do you take for one story?
Leah Hennel: Depends. If I have only 10 minutes to grab someone's portrait — and set it up properly — it might be only a few frames. And with breaking news, you just never know. But for my longer-term projects, I don't even count. Literally in the thousands. I've been documenting Alberta's rural communities — including Indigenous people, Hutterite colonies, cowboy and rancher culture — for more than 20 years, so thousands and thousands of photos.
(All images © Courtesy of Leah Hennel)
Photojournalism News: What is the last trip you made?
Leah Hennel: The last international trip? To Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics. And closer to home, from Calgary to Golden, B.C. — on assignment for The Guardian — to shoot a woman who survived a night-time meteorite crashing through her roof and landing on her bed.
Photojournalism News: What projects will you be working on next?
Leah Hennel: I'm working on a collaborative with another Canadian photojournalist, Tim Smith, examining the lengths and dichotomies between our explorations of the edges of the prairies. He's in Manitoba and I'm in Alberta.
Neverendingly is my plan to document rural life in Alberta. There is no finish line for this one. I plan to do it for the rest of my life. Also, for the past five years in Calgary — and going forward — I'm following a Syrian refugee family which has created a vegetable farm just outside the city. But in terms of next projects, too many to name, too many to probably get to. I'm always thinking of new ones. Personal projects are just a lot of things that I find interesting and I hope that others might feel the same.
Photojournalism News: Which of your photographs would you describe as your favourite? What makes them so special to you?
Leah Hennel: 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. In fact, PJ had requested me by name through the story's writer, Christina Frangou. 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. I think I did that.
Photojournalism News: What message do you want your photos to convey?
Leah Hennel: That there's more going on, in everyone's lives, than you'd believe. The message is, 'This is real life.' It's not always happy, it's not always sad, it's just life. But for whomever, wherever, it's always compelling. It's a privilege to open people's eyes to communities — and the struggles and joys therein — that they may not know about in their own backyard.
I want my photos to convey emotion, happy or sad. When people see the photos I hope they feel something. The photos of others that I think are great always move me in some way. Laughing or crying. Or they intrigue me and convince me to learn more about what's going on.
Photojournalism News: What does a photo need to be great in your eyes?
Leah Hennel: That's such a subjective question. Because what I think is a great photo, others may disagree. Spend time on any photo-contest judging panel to learn about that. Beyond the basics of composition and light — we all look at that — a photo needs to tell a story. The photo needs to make you think about what is going on. For me, I want to be moved or learn something more about the subject.
Photojournalism News: In the digital age people consume billions of photos every single day, under the circumstances what could make a photo memorable?
Leah Hennel: Iconic photos will always stop you in your tracks because they tell a story. Such as the couple making out during the 2010 Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver (by Rich Lam). Such as the three-year-old boy, a Syrian refugee named Aylan Kurdi, who drowned and washed up on shore on Turkey in 2015 (by Nilufer Demir), which was a single image that stirred the emotions of the world.
Even though we are inundated with photos daily — and everyone thinks they're a photographer — there will still be those iconic photos, those images, that will move people and, in some cases, create change. That's why I feel photojournalists are so important, documenting history and very important moments in time.
(All images © Courtesy of Leah Hennel)
Photojournalism News: What motivates you to continue taking pictures and what do you do to keep motivated?
Leah Hennel: It's such a cliché, but it's truly what I love to do. What motivates me ... is that I'm curious. I want to learn about other people, what they do, what makes them tick. I get to live vicariously through others, while documenting what they do. Something as simple as wanting to learn how honey is made led me into a project on bees in my province — and now I know.
Photojournalism News: What was the biggest professional risk you have taken and what was the outcome?
Leah Hennel: Leaving my staff job at the Calgary Herald after 19 years to to take a staff documentary role at Alberta Health Services and cover health stories. Independent of that, I pitch projects as a freelancer and work on my own freelance photojournalism.
Photojournalism News: What would be your dream assignment?
Leah Hennel: To live amongst the reindeer herders in the Yamal Peninsula. It's been a dream of mine since I was 18 years old. I really want to go to Siberia and learn about the culture of the reindeer herders. But I also want to make sure I have a lot of time to be immersed in their culture.
Photojournalism News: What are the essential skills/ qualities a photojournalist should have?
Leah Hennel: Be curious about your surroundings. Show empathy for your subjects. Because in a lot of cases you have to establish trust with those you are photographing, especially for sensitive stories. Anyone can have technical skill, but having the ability to see a story and its potential is a priority. Be compassionate.
Photojournalism News: What do you think about the digital manipulation of images?
Leah Hennel: It's wrong, because that's not photojournalism. Our job is to reveal real life, not alter it in any way.
Photojournalism News: What does it mean to be an ethical photojournalist?
Leah Hennel: You don't manipulate a photo, for starters. But there are considerations even in how you approach a subject — for instance, being up front about your intentions and who you work for.
Photojournalism News: How do you see the role of photojournalism evolving in the world? Do you think photojournalism is losing its importance?
Leah Hennel: I think photojournalism is more important now. With the manipulation of photos and cries of fake news, it's critical to have a reliable source of visible information. Visual literacy is very important. There's always going to be a need to document history with authenticity, no matter how many people have cameras.
There's something about a still image that makes people stop. It grabs you and you focus on the one frame. It forces you to slow down and really grasp what is happening in that one shot.
Photojournalism News: What is it like to be a female photojournalist in a male-dominated field?
Leah Hennel: I'm not really sure how to answer that. There are days when I think it's gotten better for women in the industry. Then there are days when I think it hasn't. My mentor when I started was a male — who was fantastic — but it would've been nice to have more local female photographers to look up to. In Canada, I feel there's not as many women working full-time in photojournalism. I feel there's still a ways to go in the name of diversity.
I still feel I have to work that much harder to prove myself.
Photojournalism News: Do you have any advice for aspiring photojournalists?
Leah Hennel: When you can — and this may come outside of work — follow your own interests and what you're passionate about. Find personal projects to embrace and that's when you'll do your best work. You'll be energized. And don't get discouraged if your ideas and pitches aren't always well received. Know what you like and chase it.
Leah Hennel is a photojournalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. The Calgarian's work appears in publications, such as the Globe and Mail, The Guardian, Maclean's and CBC. In 2020, She published a photo book of her documentary images of rural life in Alberta, Canada.