Do you know anyone who has had COVID-19? If you’re lucky, you’ve only been exposed to the protective measures around it. But what about the human factor?
This is what Ottawa-based, award-winning photographer John Healey asked himself exactly one year ago (although it still seems like March of 2020 now…). Struggling to humanize the pandemic and to truly understand the chilling consequences, Healey turned to art.
He accessed a free database of anonymous chest x-rays submitted by hospitals and applied an innovative post-production process to the images. For the first 100 days of the lockdown, Healey worked diligently to turn tiny x-ray files into finished art pieces.
Now, the collection poses a chilling prompt—looking at the x-ray, we inevitably think: “Who is this? How are they doing? Where are they now?” With some pieces, we can tell the person is a woman or has a heart monitor. This abysmal information is all we are offered about the person the lungs belong to.
But what we extract from these images is much larger. It’s the ability to visualize the virus, to see the fog in the lungs, and to only imagine how difficult this must be for people to survive. We get perspective.
Apt613 caught up with John Healey in a video chat to discuss his new project, At The End of Your Breath. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Apt613: Tell us about this new project. How did you come up with the idea?
John Healey: When we first went into lockdown, I was put out of my normal routine, just like many others. I kept seeing images of empty streets and people wearing PPE in the media. I wasn’t seeing the sick people.
I contacted my cousin, an x-ray technician in Burlington, and learned that you can have all the safety precautions in place but there were still a huge number of people coming in with the virus.
This harsh reality made me really afraid; I realized that this is bigger than I thought. It was then I decided to use the x-ray images to take the abstract out of the virus. I learned about a fascinating concept called The Invisible College, where scientists share anonymous patient data online to help others. I was able to find x-rays of COVID-19 patients with no names. For 105 days I took the images down, post-produced them and put my own visual language on them.
This project helped me get through the first 100 days of the lockdown. It put a real fine point to the fact that each x-ray was a somebody—it could be my mom who’s 88 or my brother who’s 63.
What are some outcomes you would like to see from this project?
The themes between my projects are consistent—I want to bring awareness to what’s really happening, in this case to a COVID-19 patient, and in my last project, to the environment.
People often think “this won’t happen to me” when pondering tragedies. I’d love to bring the sad reality of this virus to those who still think this way and ideally help them behave in a more safe way to protect others.
You mentioned your visual language. Can you tell us more about your post-production process?
Since the x-rays were tiny low-resolution images coming off the Internet, I had to put them through two different pieces of software in order to be legible.
In my mission to make the images impactful, I experimented with multiple programs, processing the files on my tablet, then editing in Photoshop. Each image took a minimum of three runs into the software with 105 images in total. As a novice and a civilian, I went in and said “that’s a blob that doesn’t look good in the lung” and drew attention to that. I wanted people to clearly understand where the pneumonia is and what the virus looks like. The patients are struggling, and I wanted to make it painfully obvious that something is going on inside them. That was the visual goal.
The patients are struggling, and I wanted to make it painfully obvious that something is going on inside them.
The name of the project came when my wife and I were talking about the French film À Bout de Souffle (Breathless) and the conversation came around to the transliteration, which is “at the end of your breath.” These words stuck in my mind and this phrase led me to consider the human’s breathing cycle. There are pauses—sucking air in, then pushing it out, rest and repeat. At The End Of Your Breath is where you rest. The name of the project connected everything.