The Life Witness

By Joe Rocha | Monday, January 11th 2021

Heather Gallagher snaps still photos of baby Luca in the backyard of parents Mirelle Leguia and Jason Porras’ home in Southwest Austin. She sits, stands and hovers around the edges of a small audience gathered together for the baby’s naming ceremony. For Gallagher, it's not just about taking photographs, but about providing proof of existence.

“[Luca] was born via surrogacy. ... I was able to document this family from when the surrogate was pregnant with him and was able to attend the birth,” Gallagher says. “The more time I get to work with a family, the more intimate our relationship becomes.”

Gallagher operates a family photography and doula business in Austin, Texas. Her work covers birth, death and everything in between.

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Mirelle Leguia and her husband Jason Porras (left) hold newborn Luca shortly after his birth at the surrogates, Christine and George Puryear’s (right), Round Rock home on April 4th, 2020. Heather Gallagher was hired to document a year in the life of the Porras-Leguia family, which included the surrogacy birth of their son Luca. Photo courtesy of Heather Gallagher.

“In both businesses, what the through line is, is that I am a witness first and foremost,” Gallagher says. “I really strive to hold space and to empower people in whatever they're going through.”

Gallagher got her first camera at 8 or 9. Her mother, Yen Lee, lost her hearing when she was 3 or 4 after contracting tuberculosis. Photography became a way for the two to communicate.

“I would put a Polaroid on a self-timer. I would photograph myself and I ended up storyboarding events that I was doing,” Gallagher says. “It was like I cracked this code and so quite literally photography became my language and it started really just to communicate with her, but then I saw it as this portal in a way to communicate in this universal way.”

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Heather Gallagher’s parents, Yen Lee (left) and Thomas Gallagher (right) video chat with Heather and her family from Mitchellville, Maryland on December 29th, 2020. Lee was one of the inspirations for Gallagher’s eventual work as a photographer.

Gallagher continues to look for those universal themes in her work today, documenting the milestone moments families go through.

“The staple of what I do is family photography, like intimate documentary … family photography,” Gallagher says. “It's built on so much intimacy and trust.”

Mirelle Leguia and her husband Jason Porras hired Gallagher to document a year in their life, which included the birth of their son, Luca.

“With my oldest son, we never took newborn pictures or birth pictures or anything really, and I always regretted it,” Leguia says. “I started following [Gallagher] on Instagram and her work is just amazing. … She continually tries to show the humanity of different circumstances of different people in different phases of life.”

While doing family photography, a friend of Gallagher’s asked her to be present at the birth of their child as emotional support. This was Gallagher’s first time witnessing a birth and photographing one.

“What milestone is bigger than birth? And so when I actually had the opportunity to document one, I was just hooked,” Gallagher says.

After witnessing many important life milestones and births behind the camera, Gallagher decided to tackle a new venture.

“After doing birth work for so long as a birth photographer,” she says. “I decided to kind of officially become a doula and get training and open up that part of my practice.”

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Heather Gallagher preps a care package to send to one of her doula clients at her home in Northwest Austin on December 29th, 2020. The care package includes a written letter and a bottle of non-alcoholic champagne to ring in the new year.

Amy Nevland is a director-at-large at The International Childbirth Education Association (ICEA), an organization that has developed an internationally recognized doula certification. She also co-founded ATX Doulas and has worked as a doula for more than 10 years.

“A doula is there as a continual presence during the labor,” Nevland says. “When you have a knowledgeable doula that has been to more than 25 births, that particular doula is able to provide the kind of emotional support and confidence to the birthing parents so that they are then able to be more calm … and to allow the birth process to continue in a more unhindered, uninhibited way.”

As a doula, Gallagher helps clients with prenatal care consultations and offers assistance to parents during and after births. After working with clients going through birth, Gallagher was asked to help with another important milestone.

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Heather Gallagher scrolls through photos she took of the birth of Luca Porras-Leguia at her office in Northwest Austin on December 27th, 2020.

“I think because I've been there for so many people's intimate moments during birth, I just organically had a lot of people reach out to me when someone in their family or they themselves were dying,” Gallagher says. “I consider myself a full spectrum doula in that I work with families and individuals from preconception to all the way through death.”

Gallagher trained with the International End of Life Doula Association (INELDA) and works with dying clients and clients who have loved ones that are dying. She provides non-medical counseling, helps plan dying wishes and documents the process through photography.

“When I work with these families and the dying individuals, the more that they can accept that, dying is not a medical event, it is an event that is inevitable,” Gallagher says. “Hopefully, I can help people leave earth in a more calm state, and then I can help the loved ones transform all of that pain into something really beautiful.”

Whether it’s through her work as a doula or a photographer, Gallagher understands the power of being a witness.

“I've always been someone who people share a lot with,” she says. “I don't take that for granted. It's really special to be trusted with so much of somebody, you know, so many feelings and so much, so many intimate moments.”

*Correction: Heather Gallagher trained with the International End of Life Doula Association (INELDA). An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Gallagher was certified by the INELDA. *

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