"The photos on the wards were like therapy for me": Meet Hannah Grace Deller

Hannah Grace Deller is the matron for Children's Services at St Mary’s Hospital. Before training as a nurse Hannah studied photography, developing skills that she’d later use to capture life on the Covid wards during the pandemic. The photos she took give a rare insight into St Mary’s Hospital during lockdown and were shown on television, in newspapers, and inspired an album celebrating frontline workers. Now, they feature in Held in Hope, a permanent exhibition from Imperial Health Charity that explores the impact of Covid-19 across our hospitals and wider community. Here, Hannah talks about her varied career and how the photos came about.

In my 20s I was living in New York and working as a waitress in an Italian restaurant. One day, two fine art photographers came in and they asked if I’d mind watching over their children for a little while. I said I would and later on they showed me their cameras and how to use them. I had a bit of a flair for it and they employed me as a photography assistant.

When I went back to England, I decided to study for a national diploma in photography at Barking & Dagenham College before doing an internship in New York. Since then, I’ve always taken pictures but I've never made a lot of money from it, so I always had to do something else.

If I was rich, I would probably just take pictures and dedicate a couple of days a week to nursing. Photography helps me unwind, and it helps me to destress – which was really useful during the pandemic.

As a photographer, you want to travel. I used to think I'd be a nurse and work for Médecins Sans Frontières - going out to different countries and then taking pictures - but in some ways, with Covid-19, it came to me.

The first photo I took during the pandemic was in March 2020 and it features in the new exhibition at the Trust. Many of our children’s wards became Covid wards and I was walking down the corridor one day when I saw a member of the domestic team stuck in a set of one way doors. I helped him but just before he came through I got my phone out and took a picture as I was struck by the thought, ‘I should be documenting this’... 

From then on, when someone was on their break, or putting on or taking off their PPE, I would take a few quick snaps on my phone with their permission and then go back to work. I’d also take photos going to and from the hospital to try and capture the strangeness of lockdown life in my local area. There’s one picture in the exhibition of a set of swings that had been wrapped up to stop people using them and they almost look like spiderwebs.

In hindsight, the photos on the wards were almost like therapy for me – taking pictures of the day and making a scrapbook with stories. I wanted to show life from the inside a little bit more and how we were getting on. The photos were more so to have a memory of it all, I didn’t think they would turn into anything.

My nurse friends also shared poems and memories from this time – we spent a lot of time together. We were like a big family and we really got to know each other.

I thought the clapping for the NHS throughout the pandemic was quite sweet. When I was driving home once I managed to hear it – I stopped my car in the square I live in, opened the windows and listened to the clapping and banging of pots and pans. It was just the normal person's way of trying to show appreciation in a way that they could.

During Covid, I know I did everything I could for everyone that I nursed, the families that I looked after, and the staff, who were often quite frightened.

When I see the photos now I think how bizarre that time was for everyone. Not just nurses and doctors – people that had to stay at home too. We all had our own experience of the pandemic and we all got through it together.

Hannah is one of six artists featured in Held in Hope – an exhibition of photographs, paintings and drawings on display across the Trust. It can be viewed on the second floor of Charing Cross Hospital next to the restaurant, on the walls of the restaurant corridor at Hammersmith Hospital and on the second floor of the QEQM building (main entrance) at St Mary’s Hospital. Visit the Imperial Health Charity website to find out more about the charity and their arts programme.