Faces of the recession: Calgary photographer Michael Heywood documents downturn through intimate portraits

Recessions can be measured in terms of lost incomes and jobs, but behind the numbers are people: grandmothers, welders, church pastors, information technology managers and tens of thousands of others. These are our friends, our neighbours, our family members and each has their own story and experience.

'I woke up every morning for a month, worried if I was going to go to work and get laid off'

Michael Heywood portraits of the recession

5 years ago
Photographer Michael Heywood discusses his project taking portraits of Calgarians affected by layoffs 3:54

Recessions can be measured in terms of lost incomes and jobs, but behind the numbers are people: grandmothers, welders, church pastors, information technology managers and tens of thousands of others.

These are our friends, our neighbours, our family members and each has their own story and experience.

Calgary photographer Michael Heywood has captured some of these stories through his unique lens.

Michael Heywood had an idea for a photography project when he noticed his business, as a commercial photographer, had dropped off due to the Alberta recession. (David Bell/CBC)

As a commercial photographer, Heywood had recently seen some of his own business fall off and he wanted to record how deeply the downturn was affecting people in the city.

So he posted an ad on Kijiji, asking people to tell him their stories.

Michael Heywood posted an ad to Kijiji in April, looking for photography subjects. He was surprised at the response he got within only a couple of days. (Kijiji)

Within days, Heywood knew his project was touching something deep in the heart of Calgarians, as the responses came flooding in and dozens of Calgarians wanted a chance to speak.

Below are just a few of what Heywood said will be a couple of dozen portraits of the downturn.

'It was really hard'

Cindy Rechlo was devastated when she lost her job in Calgary after moving from B.C. to help her daughter following the birth of a grandchild. (Michael Heywood)

Cindy Rechlo's plan was to help her daughter in Calgary.

"My daughter was having her second baby and she has really rough deliveries. She has postpartum depression after. Her husband is a car salesperson and he works some days from 7 a.m. and he doesn't get home until 9:30 p.m.," Rechlo said.

So Rechlo moved from Quesnel, B.C., where she grew up, to Calgary last July. But after six months she lost her job as a medical office assistant at a wellness centre.

"It was really hard," Rechlo said through tears, adding that she had to move to Courtenay, B.C., to get a job in the same field.

"My daughter is a really great mom, but knowing that she lives with a mental illness, it's really hard to be away from her," she said. 

Through one of the hardest years of her life, which included a divorce, Rechlo says there is still room for optimism.

"I am trying to stay strong for my kids, and my grandkids keep me going every day."

'A difficult day for sure'

Steven Griffin had been a church pastor at Rockyview Alliance Church for over four years until he was laid off in February. (Michael Heywood)

The thing that keeps Steven Griffin going is his faith.

Griffin was a pastor as the Rockyview Alliance Church until he was laid off in February.

"The Alberta economy affects churches as well, because people have less money and, of course, they are giving less," Griffin said.

"When I was called in, I knew what it was, but still it is a bit of a shock. It's still a little bit jarring in the sense that, 'OK, well, this church that I have had a relationship with for 12 years, that is over and I have to think about the next steps,'" Griffin explained.

"It makes it a difficult day for sure."

Griffin has called Calgary home for about 16 years.

"I don't think I have seen anything like this," he said. "I had never heard of a member of the clergy being laid off for economic reasons. That definitely paints a picture of how dire it is economically in the province."

'Austerity measures'

Lori Clauson was an IT manager with an oil and gas company. After being laid off, she has decided to change careers. (Michael Heywood)

The harder piece for Lori Clauson is that her recent layoff wasn't the first time she's been through the process.

Three years ago, the IT manager was laid off from a small oil and gas company. Following another layoff last year, Clauson decided to change careers entirely.

"I am a teacher now," she said. "It is a huge change and change is always a little bit uncomfortable, but I am really glad that I did it and I am hoping that it means no more layoffs, but who knows?" 

The English teacher said despite very different compensation in her new career, her stress level has dropped.

"I joke with my husband that we are living in austerity measures," Clauson said.

"But we are still the same people and we are still enjoying our lives ... It has been a good process. I am not glad I was laid off, but I am glad I have this opportunity and I am just trying to make the best of it."

'Two days after the election'

Kelly Andrews is a welder. He says problems for the company he worked for began right after the provincial election in 2015. (Michael Heywood)

Kelly Andrews is also making the best of it now, but he said being laid off financially devastated his family, as well as taking an emotional toll.

The 32-year-old welder who lives in High River, Alta., was laid off from his position of five years with a steel company in nearby Aldersyde.

"It has affected our family a lot because I was off work for about four months," Andrews said. "We used all of our savings and maxed out our MasterCard and our Visa. We ate macaroni and cheese for I don't know how long."

Andrews and his wife borrowed money from their parents to stay afloat.

He doesn't mince words on where he places the blame for Alberta's economic woes — it all started on May 5, 2015, he said, when the NDP came to power.

He said contracts with companies like Cenovus Energy and Suncor took a hit almost immediately, threatening jobs for the company's 65 workers.

"A couple of days after the election, they started calling us and cancelling jobs... We laid off the entire night shift [of about 20 guys], all in one day," he said. "Two or three days later, we laid off probably half of the day shift [and in] about a month, we were down to four guys."

When the cuts finally hit, Andrews said he was not prepared.

"I woke up every morning for a month, worried if I was going to go to work and get laid off. Finally I went to work one day, they waited until 3 p.m., two weeks before Christmas, and handed me my frickin' lay-off slip," Andrews said.

The financial strain took a toll at home, and soon he and his wife were fighting about everything, he said.

"We had screaming matches over what to watch on TV, but the 'what to watch on TV' was about money," Andrews said. "Everything was, because we had no money... It affects everything."

Andrews is now working for a meat-processing facility making $2 an hour more than his old position. He said he's hopeful about the future "if we can get rid of the NDP."

"I have learned not to take things for granted and not to expect anything," he said. "You better hang on to what you have and hang on to today, because tomorrow might suck," he adds.


Since being laid off in February from an oil and gas company, Cary Schatz says his stress level has gone way down. (Michael Heywood)

Cary Schatz said he never took his position as supply chain lead for a mid-sized oil and gas company for granted.

"They did three major rounds of layoffs, and then a couple months later, they decided to let contractors go."

Schatz was a contractor.

"My boss had called me down to his office ... When I sat down, he told me. I totally didn't react badly, I was not overly shocked. I knew that something was coming. A lot of people get into a very bad headspace and get angry. Why me? Why wasn't it that guy? I promised myself that when it did happen, I wouldn't react that way and I didn't. I left what I feel was on very good terms. They even gave me more notice than they were required to do."

He has now taken up photography, and he's working with his wife Chandra Schatz, a business affairs analyst who helps TV producers get tax credits and grants.

She said since losing his job, Cary is a different person.

"Much more easy going, happier," Chandra explained. "He tells more dad jokes," she quipped.

"I honestly did not realize how stressed out he was until he finished working there and the stress went away. It was crazy."

Cary doesn't feel any resentment towards the oil and gas sector.

"Let's say oil goes back to about $60 a barrel, I think that would be enough to bring more jobs back in and keep things going, but I kind of wonder, in the long term, if oil is ever going to fully recover back to the days of $100 plus a barrel," he said.

"Oil people aren't the only ones affected. That, to me, is more sad than just the oil people losing their jobs."

Gallery showing

Michael Heywood plans to have a gallery showing of his portraits in the fall, giving the proceeds to food banks and organizations that support people who have lost their jobs. (David Bell/CBC)

Photographer Mike Heywood hopes his project will help people affected by the recession.

Once he has shot about two dozen portraits, the plan is to hold a gallery showing with the proceeds going to food banks and groups that support those who have lost their jobs.

"I am hoping there is a real and genuine connection that the viewer can take from the subject, but also maybe as well, an appreciation of, 'I could be in that picture, I am only one pink slip away from being a subject for Mike's project,'" Heywood explained.

As a commercial photographer, the ebbs and flows of a recession are nothing new to Heywood.

"I am more used to it because as a self-employed person you go through these cycles all of the time. But for a lot of these people, being laid off is a huge fear for them, especially in Alberta," he said.

"It has been a long time since there was a feeling of, 'Oh, there might not be a job for me for a while.' For some of these people, that is a very new feeling. It is a different vibe this time around."

Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.


David Bell

Web Journalist

David Bell has been a professional, platform-agnostic journalist since he was the first graduate of Mount Royal University’s Bachelor of Communications in Journalism program in 2009. His work regularly receives national exposure.


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