I left school at 15. I never realised I was creative or had an eye until I was in my early 20s when, waitressing in New York, I met two fine-art photographers. They offered me an internship, after which I went professional. There were events, freelance commissions – but not enough to make a living. Back in the UK, I retrained as a nurse. But I didn’t stop taking photos.
Today, I’m a paediatric matron at St Mary’s hospital, Paddington, London. Back in March we got a call saying we needed to change one of the children’s wards into an adult Covid-positive one. A&E was overwhelmed and the adult wards were overflowing. The children’s wards, by contrast, were not as busy as usual. That evening we started to admit adults, most elderly, many needing palliative care.
We had to learn about Covid as we went along. The consultants from the infectious diseases unit would come and talk to us, but we were all so busy it was difficult to stand back, take stock, and understand what was going on.
We were, of course, all wearing full PPE, our faces hidden behind masks, but I would say to patients: “You know we’re smiling underneath?” We had gloves on but could still hold their hands, reassure them.
Sometimes I would take home the clothes they’d come in wearing and wash them so they could go home with clean clothes when they were discharged. It felt important. Humane. We’re still in touch with some of our patients from those weeks, or family members we got to know over FaceTime. One lady still sends us cakes and biscuits every week.
There were problems accessing PPE – so many times we almost ran out. We all worked so many extra hours. I lost count, but then it wasn’t like any of us had anywhere else to go – we couldn’t see our friends or families, so work became our family throughout that time and we supported each other. It was exhausting and intense but there was an energy about what we were doing. Adrenaline kept us going.
It’s not always appropriate to bring a big camera on to the wards, so I take a lot of my pictures on iPhone. I photograph my fellow workers, the domestics, porters, doctors, ward managers, the people on reception – people forget about them, but they’re there every day, on the frontline. Many photos capture intensely private moments, anguish in colleagues’ eyes, or exhaustion in their faces.
This image is of Arman, a domestic at St Mary’s. Without him – cleaning the floors, emptying the bins, making sure everything on the wards is safe – the hospital could not function. I came across him one afternoon as I was walking down a corridor. He was behind that door, pointing. He’d got trapped clearing rubbish away, because most normal routes around the hospital had been closed off, or made one-way. I was struck by how he was doubly isolated: behind the door, behind his PPE. I had to untape the door to let him and his trolley out – but first I asked him if I could take his picture. People in jobs like him are so often invisible – especially when they are in PPE you can’t even recognise them – but they are what the NHS is really about. The unsung heroes.
I had mixed feelings about the clapping. I was like: “Why? We’re just getting on with it, doing our jobs. You never clapped us before.” And when I saw the politicians doing it, I felt quite uncomfortable. Do they really care? We haven’t had a decent pay rise in so many years.
And then my photos ended up on TV, on Grayson Perry’s Art Club. He wanted people to submit art on the theme of pets and I found a picture I’d taken years ago, of me and my friends, happy and relaxed in the sun at a dog show in Primrose Hill. Grayson interviewed me over Zoom and commissioned me to take some pictures of my work at the hospital, which to be honest I’d been doing anyway, but I didn’t tell him that. Those images then featured in the final episode, and they’re also going to be part of a forthcoming exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery of his favourite work from the TV show.
That led in turn to Chris Difford getting in touch. I grew up listening to Squeeze – my dad loved them and played their music all the time. Difford asked if he could use my photos on his new collaborative album Song Club. And then it turned out that they had inspired the whole album; there’s a beautiful song called Hannah Takes Pictures by Kathryn Williams, and another, Working on the Frontline, is all about my working day, complete with a video that features me rapping, really badly!
I love taking pictures – I’m so interested in people – but how can you not love being part of saving lives? It feels like the two parts of me have finally merged. I was shooting one of the anti-mask protests a few weeks ago and got a picture of Piers Corbyn being arrested. As I was taking his picture I had to stop myself putting my camera down and saying to the police: “Can you not manhandle him, guys? He’s an old man!” The nurse in me couldn’t help it. I would never be the photographer who stands back and photographs someone jumping off the bridge. I’d be the one in the frame before that, holding his hand, stopping him.
• Hannah Grace Deller’s photographs are in Grayson’s Art Club exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery, opening in December. Chris Difford’s album Song Club is out now.
Born: Bermondsey, London, 1973.
Trained: Photography internship in New York with Gwen Akin/Alan Ludwig, National Diploma in photography at Barking College, UK.
Influences: “Annie Leibovitz, Bill W, Martin Parr. The writings of Anthony De Mello and Maya Angelou, George Michael. And my mum.”
High point: “Appearing on Grayson Perry’s Art Club during lockdown and featuring in his exhibition.”
Low point: “Working in a pie and mash shop peeling potatoes and washing up for 13 hours. I only got paid £10.”
Top tip: “Always take your own PG Tips abroad.”