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Leah Hennel always knew what she wanted to be when she grew up, thanks to a subscription her mom gave her to National Geographic. She remembers flipping through the pages, imagining what it’d be like to travel the world with a camera in hand.
From the beginning, the SAIT Journalism grad (1998) has been making history. At age 21, she was the youngest female staff photographer in Canada for a major Canadian newspaper. Ever since, Hennel has adapted with the ever-evolving industry to stay atop her game, moving from film to digital and adding video to her storytelling prowess.
As an internationally recognized photojournalist and documentary photographer, she is known for her work capturing the western life in Southern Alberta and for her pursuit of overlooked or uncomfortable stories such as “Sister Servants of Mary Immaculate“, “Medically Assisted Death” and “Remembering Barbi Harris: Dying on the Street.” Her work has won multiple awards, including best feature photo from the National Newspaper Awards in 2013 and 2017. And if that isn’t enough, she also teaches Wedding Photography at SAIT. Here’s why she does what she does and how she does it:
Why photojournalism and how did you break into the industry?
I was a bit of a loner growing up and photography just kind of helped me come out of my shell. Even from a young age, I’ve always found people’s lives interesting — real stories are important to tell.
I started at the Calgary Sun when I was 16 as part of my high school work experience course, and I continued working there while I was studying the two-year photojournalism program at SAIT. I did my practicum with Sports Illustrated photographer, Bill Frakes in Jacksonville, Florida. We did a lot of portraits of professional athletes.
After SAIT, I continued to work for the Sun, first in their photo department, developing film and I’d get the odd assignment here and there. Then I moved to the imaging department colour correcting photos.
A job opened up at the Calgary Herald — the shift was 11 pm to 7 am. I phoned the photo editor at the Herald, Peter Brosseau and applied for the job. I literally worked the graveyard shift as a staff photographer for a year-and-a-half.
I wasn’t getting a lot stories through the police scanner, so I found my own stories and would shoot documentary series on things such as night shift workers and the Blackfoot Diner, which was open 24-7. Pursuing those stories is what got me on as a regular daytime staff.
What has it been like to be a female in a traditionally male-dominated industry?
When I was first in the industry, there weren’t that many women in photojournalism. I remember trying to not bring attention to the fact that I am a female. I didn’t want people to not take me seriously because I am a woman. There were a lot of comments, but I am sure that happens in every industry. Working in media has changed a lot since then, but sometimes not.
At the same time, there were also a lot of men at the Sun and Herald who have really helped me out. Mike Drew, who is still in the industry, kind of took me under his wing from the beginning. He’s my mentor and my friend — I actually learned more from him than I did from anyone else.
Was there a specific moment in your career that you knew you had made it?
I guess the first time I went to Africa with a reporter for the Herald in 2002. We were in Sudan and I was like, ‘Wow, I’m here and I’m doing this.’ I was also panicking because I didn’t want to screw it up. It’s funny, when I look at the photos now, I think, ‘Those are awful.’ I can’t believe they ran them (laughs).
From the outside it might look like I’m leading this fabulous documentary photography lifestyle, but it’s not always like that. You’re not earning an Annie Leibovitz level of income (laughs). So I do a lot of my own projects on my days off. I’m lucky because I have a very supportive family. I am going to South Korea to cover the Olympics and will be away for a month. My son is 13 right now, so there’s guilt that comes with that. I hope when he is older he will be proud of me for doing something that I loved. So it’s hard, but I couldn’t picture doing anything else.
How do you capture a strong photo?
I’m still trying to figure that out (laughs). I think when it comes down to it, it’s all about light. And then, the emotion of the person. You have to have that connection with them — you have to put your camera down to do that, and you end up missing a lot. That can be hard as a photojournalist at a newspaper because you only have 10 minutes to get a photo. You have to connect quickly and you have to be able to talk to people. It’s hard and it’s something I’m still learning.