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Coping during COVID-19: how creativity can help you step back from stress

We’re not infallible, says the photographer behind Manchester’s giant nurse mural

Were not infallible, says the photographer behind Manchesters giant nurse mural

I strive to fight against the image of the nurse as an angel.

Were not angels we're living, breathing human beings. We make mistakes, we get scared, we experience trauma and we fight hard, every day.

An image showing nurses fierce determination, not infallibility

My photo portrait of my nursing colleague Melanie Senior has become an iconic image of the profession during the COVID-19 pandemic. The photo, taken in March at the surgery where we both worked, has since been used to create a hand-painted mural on a building in Manchester, which was highlighted

We’re not infallible, says the photographer behind Manchester’s giant nurse mural

The mural created from Johannah Churchill’s photo of nursing colleague Melanie Senior
The mural created from Johannah Churchill’s photo of nursing colleague Melanie Senior
Picture: Jon Super

I strive to fight against the image of the nurse as an angel.

We’re not angels – we're living, breathing human beings. We make mistakes, we get scared, we experience trauma and we fight hard, every day.

An image showing nurses’ fierce determination, not infallibility

My photo portrait of my nursing colleague Melanie Senior has become an iconic image of the profession during the COVID-19 pandemic. The photo, taken in March at the surgery where we both worked, has since been used to create a hand-painted mural on a building in Manchester, which was highlighted extensively in media coverage.

I hope that it conveys Melanie’s raw humanity – a sense that she is not infallible, and the fierceness in her eyes.

‘I see overlaps between nursing and photography – people give part of themselves to you and you have to treat that as the gift it is’

I’ve been a nurse for ten years but I’ve always been drawn to the arts. Straight after leaving school, I did the first year of study for a fine art degree in Manchester but then realised I would need steady employment.

I switched to nursing, which offered me that and drew on my strong communication skills. A year after qualifying I enrolled on a photography undergraduate degree at Middlesex University, and went on to a photography master’s degree.

Since graduating, I’ve done photography alongside full-time nursing work in acute care, district nursing and community settings.

Showing what healthcare workers feel and the emotions they carry on their face

I see so many overlaps between nursing and photography – patients put their trust in you in much the same way that a portrait sitter would. They give a part of themselves to you and you have to treat that as the gift it is.

I’m interested in what healthcare workers have to say and the emotions they carry on their face.

For my undergraduate project Watchful Waiting – a series of portraits of NHS workers – I sat with my subjects for hours.

Generally, NHS workers are reluctant to talk about their hardships and I think it helps to be photographed by someone who understands that.

Many people I know have experienced burnout; without photography I may never have opened up that dialogue.

At the time I thought I was fine; looking back, I’m not so sure

Working in healthcare it is easy to take things home with you, and the pandemic meant bringing home a lot of extra anxiety. Information changed every day.

Many staff were ill at the beginning of the first lockdown, so in general practice our jobs became cleaner, receptionist, nurse and counsellor. Resources became less evenly spread and heavily channelled towards the vulnerable.

Regular patients called to tell us that they were afraid. At the time I thought I was fine. Looking back, I’m not so sure.

‘I realised this pandemic was an unprecedented event and how important it was to try and record it’

I made stronger connections with colleagues and we built a garden in our spare time, where we could be socially distanced. But I felt the loss of not having friends around me for support. I’m sure everyone went through that.

I have been doing an online postgraduate certificate in diabetes care, and would often stay behind to study. It felt like I was never away from work. I was so absorbed with taking in information about the pandemic, I barely thought about picking up my camera.

That was, until I was approached by the Sunday Telegraph’s Stella magazine to take a series of pictures. I realised this pandemic was an unprecedented event and how important it was to try and record it. My photo of Melanie used for the mural was born out of this project.

Using creative expression to step back and deal with experiences

Creative expression is such an important channel for nurses away from the tensions of hospital or practice life – a way to take a step back and address negative emotions and experiences.

Hospital art classes tend to be geared towards patients, but why not involve both patients and staff? Setting time aside to participate, or giving staff incentives to do so would be fantastic.

Hospitals and clinics could be like galleries of human experiences. There are a lot of white walls to fill.

Five tips for nurses keen to try creative activities

  • Try different forms and styles of art, craft and design It may take a while to find what works for you creatively – talk to people, research other artists with similar ideas or start by emulating something you like and branch out from there
  • Share your work, thoughts and experiences It’s the most rewarding part of what I do – the photography is almost secondary to the interactions I have had in doing it. I’ve learned so much from people, and a lot about myself
  • Embrace mistakes You will often find this leads to the most interesting results. Constant striving for perfection can distract you from what actually has value
  • Enjoy it without pressuring yourself into a goal I don’t enjoy my processes half as much as I should. Take a little time to take note of your progress
  • Make time for yourself Acknowledge pain and hardship and don’t feel ashamed of struggling. Art can help you do this: it can be a catharsis

Johannah Churchill, a photographer and community diabetic nurse lead at a general practice in south east London

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