Heather Gallagher is a photographer, a doula, and a storyteller. Her work as a family photojournalist has allowed her to capture life’s most intimate moments, from birth to death, which is something she continues to take part in as a full spectrum doula.
I’ve been in awe of Heather’s work since following her on Instagram, and am thrilled to have her share her story on Movers + Makers. Below, Heather shares the role photography has played in her life, what a typical day for her looks like, and how her two businesses intersect and influence one another.
Tell us about your background. How long have you been doing photography, and what led you to start your own business?
I was born and raised in Maryland just outside of Washington, DC in 1985. My mother is a deaf, Chinese immigrant and my father is a hearing, white American and I have one older brother who is also hearing. No one was the same amount of fluent in any language at any given time so in our home we communicated in lots of crude ways – a mash up of Chinese, Taiwanese and American sign language, home sign (made up slang), drawings and ultimately, for me, with polaroids. In me using photography as a tool, it quickly became my language and passion and how I best communicated my thoughts and feelings with everyone, not just my mom. I documented my family endlessly and that evolved into documenting families and groups around me (people in the neighborhood, my friends, extended family, the summer camp I used to work at). I started getting hired by those in my inner circle to do this from a young age and, through word of mouth, started getting clients, shooting everything from family portraits to birthday parties to band photos.
I was 17 years old when I went off to college in NYC to get my BFA in photography from Pratt Institute and I had been a working photographer for almost 3 years. I continued to take on editorial and privately commissioned clients throughout college including regular assignments for SPIN magazine and my own column in Time Out NY Kids, and by senior year I was interning with one of the leading commercial photographers in the US, Carlton Davis. I ended up staying on as Carlton’s first assistant for six years and gained more technical and business knowledge than I ever bargained for but noticed that I was creating less and less space for taking on my own clients. I didn’t want to look back at my life and realize that I was only playing a supporting role in someone else’s dreams, so I made the conscious decision to drastically change my life. My husband and I both left our jobs, packed up our almost decade long lives in NYC and moved out to Austin where we had never been and didn’t know anyone, simply because enough friends of ours had been before and told us they could see us there.
After the initial high of moving across the country died and the reality of not being around anyone familiar crept in, we wondered if we had made a huge mistake uprooting ourselves only to land in entry level jobs making minimum wage. He was a manager at a homebrew supply store and I was bartending at The Whip In. About 2 years into living here and a handful of good friends later, we gathered the courage to do what we set out to do with our lives and I started back at the bottom of the ladder shooting families and friends for next to nothing in order to gain name recognition and a relevant portfolio. I became pregnant, and the desire to prove myself to myself grew 100 times bigger and I started charging a living wage for my work and was able to quit bartending and support our family as my husband started to build what is now St Elmo Brewing Company. Now, our son is 5 and my photography business is established and I just started my own full spectrum doula business. I’m so proud of and in love with the child in me who took the pain and desperation of needing to communicate with her mom, and turned it into a way to have families and individuals feel seen and hopefully foster deeper communication between people to get to the heart of what it is to be human and in need of connection.
“I didn’t want to look back at my life and realize that I was only playing a supporting role in someone else’s dreams, so I made the conscious decision to drastically change my life.”
What does a typical day look like for you? Do you have any routines in place, or is every day different?
After my no matter what two cups of coffee back to back as soon as I wake up, everyday is so different! Especially now that I’m a doula, on any given day I can be working with clients in such different capacities, it’s wild actually (and so fun!). For example, last week, on one day I delivered my birth clients placenta to her at home and then held her baby and helped with breastfeeding during our postpartum visit. From there I went to my new commercial client’s chiropractic office to do staff portraits and capture candids of her adjusting patients. On another day I’ll have a family documentary shoot where I meet my client at a coffee shop and hang with them for a few hours capturing their day with young kids and then head to my office for a few hours of editing. I’m on hold for a birth (as the photographer and/or doula) on average once a month and I am a doula for and document clients who are in various stages of dying on average once every other month. I also have a 5 year old and am happily married so most Friday’s you can find us having pizza and wine at one of our local spots with our dog in tow.
At Movers + Makers, we believe in the value of storytelling as a way to connect. How has storytelling played a role in your work?
My work is 1000% storytelling. It’s everything. I am a witness to so many people’s stories unfolding right in front of me and whether I’m documenting it through photographs or simply experiencing it and holding space for it as a doula, it’s through constantly standing in my own truth and allowing it to collide with others’ truth that keeps me convinced that we are all more alike than not.
As a family and birth photographer, where do you go for inspiration? What fuels your creativity?
It’s the private, raw conversations that happen organically between friends and family, and the casual chatter I overhear on the playground between parents or kids playing that fuel me.
I’ve observed that it’s the off the cuff remarks someone makes that can teach you more about how they see the world than the edited Instagram posts or the keynote at a conference (not that there isn’t value in those, too). These truths can be as heartbreaking as they are heartening and the result is that I always want people who look at my work to feel safe, seen and heard.
“I always want people who look at my work to feel safe, seen and heard.”
I saw that you recently became a doula! What has that process been like? Has it influenced your work as a photographer?
Yes! I’m so excited! My business is called Life’s a Spectrum and honestly, it’s been quite a seamless process. I’m a full spectrum doula which means that I provide emotional and practical support for individuals and families from birth to death (this includes fertility, abortion, miscarriage, adoption, postpartum, and diagnosis with a terminal illness). In my work as a family photojournalist, I have documented all of these life events and because of who I am as a person and a photographer (I’m not the “fly on the wall” type, I’m the “let’s do this, how can I help” type), I’m not afraid of the experiences and holding space for those who invite me into their lives in this intimate way.
How do you like to spend your time when you’re not working?
This is hard to answer because I truly love work and I work ALOT. But, in those rare times I’m not working I’m watching too much tv (lame but so true), co-raising kids with my amazing girlfriends and their families via regular playdates at each others homes or adventuring along the Greenbelt with my boys.
Is there anything you’ve recently read or listened to that’s made an impact on either your business or personal life?
I really want to be able to site someone super inspiring like Michelle Obama or Brene Brown (whose words have certainly had an impact on me) but if I’m being sincere, what I listen to the most is true crime podcasts and what they have taught me is that life is too short and unpredictable to not do what you want with it.
What is your best advice for fellow creative entrepreneurs?
Trust your gut, she’s never wrong.
You can learn more about Heather’s doula business, Life’s a Spectrum at lifesaspectrum.co and her photography work at heathergallagherphotography.com. Follow along with her life, work, and musings on Instagram @lifesaspectrum.
Images by Heather Gallagher.