Johannah Churchill, photographer from United Kingdom. Photo © Courtesy of the artist
1.Tell us what you do and your beginnings.
Photography has always been a part of my life since I could hold a camera. I learned to process and print black and white at the age of 15, but let the skill slide as soon as I discovered colour image-making.
I am a photographer who has exhibited at the Truman Brewery in London’s Brick Lane and Four Corners Gallery and Format Festival Derby. My portrait, ‘Melanie, March 2020’ was also part of the National Portrait Gallery’s “Hold Still” exhibition where it was reproduced as a mural in Manchester, but also displayed as part of a country-wide outdoor exhibit across the UK culminating in a screen display piece in Piccadilly Circus for the book launch by the Duchess of Cambridge. A print of this image is currently on display at the Royal London Hospital, exhibited by the National Portrait Gallery.
Most recently, I have spent time judging photography competitions for the BBC and the Wellcome Trust’s major competition Wellcome Photoprize alongside Brett Rogers and Azu Nwagbogu among other notable judges. My main specialism is portrait and documentary photography. I’m originally from Newcastle upon Tyne and studied BA Photography at Middlesex University in London where I won a scholarship to study to MA level.
Running parallel to my photography career, I have worked as a part-time nurse with a specialism in diabetes while living in London for the last 12 years. My time in the NHS informed my photographic practice and vice versa. Many of my portraits depict health care professionals in their downtime, examining the impact of care on the carer and my MA work has focused on human connection in the UK during post-Brexit division. My work has been seen in the FT, Telegraph, the Guardian, various nursing publications, De Standaard and the British Journal of Photography among others such as Hello and Grazia.
2.What does your work aim to say?
My work looks at human relationships, connection and emotion predominantly through portraiture and documentary photography. My NHS series of portraits of healthcare professionals aims to examine the impact of caring jobs on the carer, as well as drawing attention (later) to the tireless work being done during the extraordinary circumstances in the pandemic. A week prior to this image (Melanie March 2020) being taken a nurse colleague passed away from Covid-19.
Melanie was exhibited across the country, made into an iconic mural in Manchester as part of the National Portrait Gallery’s “Hold Still” exhibition and has since become a symbol of healthcare workers during the pandemic. I hoped healthcare workers felt she was there in solidarity with them, a reminder that they were seen.
In the Hold Still competition, I wanted her to remain ambiguous. A symbol. I gave her the title ‘Melanie March 2020’ serving only to remind us that behind all the PPE there are people who work tirelessly to save lives in the NHS – before, during and long after our initial fears about Covid-19 fade away. Melanie March 2020 first appeared in Stella Magazine (Sunday Telegraph) after I was commissioned by Jason Morris to take an image of a nurse in PPE during lockdown.
3.Where do you find inspiration for your art?
Since 2010 average nurse pay in the UK has fallen by 7.4% in real terms. The Government offered a 3% pay award for NHS staff in England this year after Union intervention. With Bank of England warning that inflation will reach as high as 4% this year, ministers are aware they are effectively cutting NHS pay again making it even harder to provide safe care for patients. NHS workers will be much worse off in 2021-22 than in 2010. The government’s choice also excludes all medics below the level of consultant in the pay award.
This, in combination with workers leaving the NHS, further vacancies on short-staffed wards left by EU citizens returning home and current waiting lists escalating to a record 5 million patients, is building ever more pressure on those who remain. At present, more nurses are leaving the NMC register than joining it. Many are under the suspicion that the Government are purposely restricting NHS services in order to force privatisation, and as more and more NHS services are awarded to private contractors, it is difficult to disagree with this belief.
I have witnessed my colleagues emotionally and physically exhausted, often to an extreme level. I have watched them at their best and worst and saw them grieve. I became very interested in the idea of ‘compassion fatigue’. As time went on, I photographed their colleagues and extended the project into a web of interconnected healthcare workers. I feel it is an important story to tell. Lockdown has been difficult in one way or another for most. Even the most stable of people have struggled with the isolation, but an alarming number of fellow colleagues have been or are currently in counselling, or mentally unwell.
4.Could you give us some insight into your creative process?
I am passionate about photography, but potentially more passionate about connecting with people and hearing what they have to say. During most portrait sessions 80% of the time is given to the conversation, the photography is usually secondary. Often, I will set up a camera on a tripod in the subject’s home or at work, near to the source of light, and we will sit and chat for a good amount of time.
We often talk about the intricacies of care delivery, fears, mistakes and the politics of care delivery in a broken system. I often direct them into positions but then allow them space and time to settle. Usually, once the sitter is less aware of me, or more comfortable we can start to photograph.
A lot of the images were taken on a mamiya 645 medium format camera and hand processed but during the lockdown access to services was restricted and I adopted the use of a full frame digital camera, which freed my photography up a little.
5.What are your future projects?
I have just finished a couple of commissions and have recently been teaching photography on the undergraduate course at the Northern Centre of Photography. I have another project coming up where I will be teaching some photography skills to healthcare professionals, as well as some black and white processing in combination with a local darkroom. I also have a few more portrait/documentary projects in the pipeline, and I’m very interested in the psychological and emotional impact on our communities following Brexit and the Pandemic.
Johannah Churchill on social networks: Instagram
Johannah Churchill is an English photographer, but above all a nurse for over ten years, or better still as she defines herself in the biography: “A nurse photographer”. She studied photography at Middlesex University and became famous for shooting her colleague Melanie Senior in March 2020, preparing for the opening of a Covid-19 clinic in South-west London.
The same image was selected for some important national projects, from the National Portrait Gallery in London, but also to create a mural by the artist David Parry: a gigantic mural of the photo was created in the Northern Quarter of Manchester, and was published in the front pages of The Guardian and Financial Times newspapers and on the social media accounts of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
It is currently being shown on a display outside Waterloo train station, in London Underground advertisements, in Putney, Balham, Croydon and Wimbledon, and on digital screens in some supermarkets across the country. Today this work is a reminder for citizens to remember the hard work of health workers during the pandemic.