Photographer captures Edmonton in the time of COVID-19

·2 min read
Chalk wall in Boyle-McCauley thanking medical personnel for their hard work  (Rebecca Lippiat/ Edmonton in the Time of Covid - image credit)
Chalk wall in Boyle-McCauley thanking medical personnel for their hard work (Rebecca Lippiat/ Edmonton in the Time of Covid - image credit)

When Edmonton photographer Rebecca Lippiat was doing front porch portrait sessions in spring of 2020, she realized that those photos were chronicling the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on everyday people.

"I wanted to document people's experience of COVID," Lippiat told CBC's Radio Active. "It should be documented."

That was the seed that grew into Edmonton in the Time of COVID, a collection of stories created with a $5,00 grant from the Edmonton Heritage Foundation. Lippiat hopes it will show future generations how the virus changed society right down to individual homes.

Lippiat has a degree in science where she specialized in microbiology, and a deep interest in pandemics.

Rebecca Lippiat/ Edmonton in the Time of COVID
Rebecca Lippiat/ Edmonton in the Time of COVID

In her research of previous pandemics, she found many stories from the perspective of "caretakers" but very little describing how life changed for average citizens.

"When you look back at previous pandemics, there's not a lot of history around how everyday people navigated their way through the pandemic." she said.

Rebecca Lippiat/Edmonton in the Time of COVID
Rebecca Lippiat/Edmonton in the Time of COVID

Finding the stories

The first story she told was about an Edmonton mail carrier.

"For some people. That was sort of like their only touch point, with the outside world," she said.

When she had a specific story in mind, Lippiat would ask around for a nurse or a child who would speak to her.

Listen here | Rebecca Lippiat used the pandemic to get to know her neighbours better

At the start of her project, Lippiat found that most people were eager to talk. She said there was something optimistic about 2020 — a hopefulness and a feeling that the vaccine would fix everything.

This year, she's finding that people in her community are exhausted and fractured.

Initially, people talked about adapting to the restrictions and other changes brought out by the pandemic.

In summer 2020, Lippiat wrote about a woman who was struggling with "long COVID" — persisting, long-term symptoms of the disease.

Rebecca Lippiat/Edmonton in the Time of COVID
Rebecca Lippiat/Edmonton in the Time of COVID

"That really interested and scared me at the same time, because there was almost nothing in the media about long COVID," Lippiat said.

In looking back at her project, she said thinks about the memories of her ex-husband's grandmother, who was six years old when the influenza pandemic of 1918 reached her home in Britannia Beach, B.C.

"She said she was the only person in her family who didn't get sick. And she remembers nursing family members." Lippiat said.

"The other thing she remembered were the coffins coming down off the mountain."

She hopes her writing project will eventually become part of the permanent collection of the provincial or city archives, to give future historians a peek into the COVID-19 pandemic.

For her, the stories offered a form of healing.

"I hope that when people read this it will help them process their own emotions around the pandemic," Lippiat said.

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