VANCOUVER -- Julia Henderson said it began with an online post from her best friend, a Vancouver obstetrician.

It was in the early days of the pandemic, and the local doctor shared a photo of herself in her personal protective equipment, a mask obscuring part of her face.

"She wrote 'Today, I’m not going to think about how awful it feels to approach distressed women in masks and gowns and face shields,'" Henderson said.

The message, which Henderson also shared online, continued: "I realized the degree to which I communicate by expression, by touch, it's all gone."

"She ended with, 'I'm a scary robot,'" Henderson said.

The post, and the picture, became an inspiration.

Julia Henderson portrait

"I had the idea to take that and try to make it look beautiful, and not scary and not dehumanizing," she said.

Henderson, an occupational therapist and actor who is currently studying theatre as a post-doctoral fellow with Concordia University, had been transforming photos using an iPad app for years.

She re-posted her friend’s photo, but this time exploding with colour and surrounded by vibrant flowers, mask included. She also asked if anyone else on the page who wanted a similar portrait of them wearing their PPE. Right away, there were requests.

"I wanted to see how could I humanize it, how could I show that kind of internal character of these people, and their warmth and their sacrifice," Henderson said.

Henderson has since started a Facebook page and Instagram account dedicated to the portraits, called Frontline Faces of COVID-19.

Portrait by Julia Henderson

Each image features a picture of a doctor, nurse or other health-care worker, wearing face protection and surrounded by bright, evocative imagery — oftentimes reflecting details about their own lives, and incorporating some of their favourite things.

"From that time, it just kind of took off. People who I don't know have started to contact me," Henderson said, and added some people get in touch to request portraits of front-line workers who hold a special place in their lives, including family members and friends.

"Some of them, I just look at them and they strike me a certain way. Some people will just say 'surprise me.'"

Henderson said others provide details, such as a person's favourite colours or love of the outdoors.

Health-care worker portrait by Julia Henderson

In one portrait, Henderson said she used imagery to symbolize the two children of an emergency room doctor who had to isolate from them.

“I did the little dragonflies to represent her children, who are always with her even when they can’t be,” Henderson said.


Henderson is producing and sharing the portraits for free, as a way to honour front-line workers during the pandemic.

"I know so many people personally who have been living apart from their loved ones," Henderson said. "It's an expression of deep gratitude and thankfulness."

And a way, she said, to let people's inner beauty shine through: "that even with the masks, we could see their humanity and what they were giving."