In Conversation with Heather White
We’re thrilled to have Heather White here this week. Heather’s a birth doula and a documentary photographer, and she brings warmth and courage to everything she touches.
This is a story about life after birth, creating beauty out of tragic loss, changing social attitudes through human connection and emotional art, and regaining a sense of self as a parent. It’s a lot, yes. We peppered it with joy and humor — which is so reflective of Heather’s way of seeing and moving through life.
Heather talks about staying curious, always searching, and learning new things to feel alive and thriving. Her words remind me of what Ben Tyree has said on this podcast about never “arriving,” respecting your craft, and always pushing it forward. It’s been amazing to see how the wisdom of our guests and community keeps connecting.
Music: Ben Tyree
Producer: Leslie Askew
Transcript, edited for length and clarity
Heather White, you’re in the house! I’m so excited to sit with you, welcome!
Heather: I’m so excited to be here. Thank you.
Ioana: The people who migrate to you and The Daring have a lot in common, so I’m just so psyched to sit with you and chat about life.
Heather: I’ve been a part of an inspiring project, and I’m honored to be a part of it. It’s called the Life After Birth Project, and it’s an exhibit that’s traveling the world funded by the company Knix, which makes leak-proof, underwear, very gender-neutral. They’re all about body positivity and everything, so this is a passion project. And it’s about the realness of postpartum life and all of its messiness and emotions.
They commissioned me to do some portraits at my studio in Brooklyn and then in Toronto a couple of weeks ago, and I shot 62 subjects in one day.
Ioana: Which is a Herculean effort. And knowing you and knowing how much love and energy you put into your sessions with people, I can tell you gave it all. I’m sure you did it over and over again for 62 humans.
Heather: Yeah. And you know, even though they were short 10 minute sessions, I connected with everybody so beautifully. And many of them, I’m so honored, trusted me with their body and self-image enough to strip down to just their skivvies.
And it was so powerful for them. A lot of what the Life After Birth Project has been about is documenting realness. We’ve been in such a rut with the perfect Instagrammable moment, and we’re trying to be part of making that shift into things that are real and messy. That’s okay, don’t judge yourself.
So many women dared to bare all, no bra and down to underwear. And saying to me, “I’ve never done anything like this before. I’ve been so critical about my body, my size, my curves, my lines,” whatever, things that we all think we need to self criticize about and saying how healing it was.
That’s the power in this. And make beauty out of imperfection. And we laughed, and we cried, and we hugged, and we swapped stories about how crazy this life is with a family. An overall theme is, you lose yourself in the process of parenting, you lose your identity. So many of us lose connection with our bodies because we give our time and energy to other people who need us.
Ioana: Yeah. Is there a way to pinpoint what established that connection between you and the person in front of you?
Heather: That’s a great question. I’ve had an innate instinct to reach people and to read people. I like to think I have the skill of being able to talk to anyone about anything.
I love challenging myself. I’ve been halfway around the world and riding on the back of a bus, sitting on top of a 50-pound bag of rice and striking up random conversations, being surrounded by chickens.
Ioana: Oh my God, I just had a vision of fluttering chickens!
Heather: Yeah! Have you noticed that anytime you go halfway around the world, if you ever take a bus ride, there’s always bags of rice and live chickens on the bus? And to me, it’s not a quality trip unless that happens.
Ioana: It’s brilliant.
Heather: What’s the pinpoint moment? I think people are reading me. I believe they are reading the genuineness. It’s a fine line when somebody’s shooting you without your clothes on, are they objectifying you? Or are they valuing and appreciating you as a human in your most raw state? They feel that I’m honored by their presence of being so open and bearing with me, and I’m just there to document their beauty coming from the inside out. And flaws be damned, you know, because perfection is boring!
Our flaws are what make us attractive. Whenever I get a scar or something, I’m like, eh. Scars tell a story. It’s the same thing with every bump and every line and everything. I’m middle-aged now, I’m 46, and I’m embracing the fact that lines are popping up on my face.
I earned those lines. Those laugh lines have seen a lot of laughter, and those age spots many Burning Mans. Yeah!
And so I feel like when I’m behind the camera, I’m not just a portrait photographer, I’m a documentary photographer. I’m there with the studio lights, and I’m documenting the energy and the people, and I’m capturing those in-between moments and the emotions. Nothing’s posed. Everything is real. That’s the sweet spot where you capture the real person.
Ioana: It’s no wonder if people connect with you.
Heather: Thank you.
Ioana: That sounds like love. You’re accepting people for who they are.
Heather: Absolutely, and a big part of when I was shooting at the Life After Birth Project in Toronto, is that the exhibit there shows me and my personal experience with my life after birth.
I’ve been quiet about it. It’s a deeply personal story of mine, but I had a full-term loss with a child that died during birth. And the story is told in the exhibit. So many people that came through and were shooting with me saw my work and were touched by it. And they read the blurb about my postpartum experience, and it reached a whole different level of touching their heart and their soul.
Ioana: Your work is an extension of your personal story.
Heather: Definitely. To even go back many years, I’ve been shooting since the year 2000. At first, not professionally, I’m self-taught, but I always seemed to have a great innate eye, and things started happening.
I started getting jobs, but yet I always had this overwhelming impostor syndrome doubt, like, “Oh, I didn’t study for that. It’s all just dumb luck.”
I was always scared to push it forward, feeling like I was never ready. And living in New York City, who the hell am I to think that I can do something big and wonderful? There are so many well-trained and disciplined photographers with the pedigree behind them, and I’m just some punk running around with the camera, making some good shots!
Ioana: You know what? That punk connects with people. That punk is lovable and easy to talk with and disarming, and no technical skill under the sun will ever top that. Ever. Technical expertise does not top heart.
Heather: True. It’s energy. You could learn the technical, but it’s the energy and the connection with people that is where I excel. So for years, I struggled as an artist, not valuing my skills and my place in this industry. I’d have bursts of success, and then I would recoil and be like, “Oh, I didn’t deserve that. That was just a total fluke.”
Yeah, a poster girl for imposter syndrome, for sure. And why is this happening to women more than men? That’s a whole other discussion.
Ioana: We can table that for now and talk about at length next time.
Heather: Definitely. So the significant change for me, though. Ten years ago, I gave birth to a child that ended up passing away. I usually like to yada yada the super sad parts and the gallons of tears. But you know, going through something like that changes you forever. And I had a lot to process, which is an understatement of a lifetime. But part of my process of grieving and healing was to learn everything I could about birth, to try to make sense of what you couldn’t make sense of, to understand what happened when there was no understanding what happened, there’s no change in what happened, there was nothing medically wrong.
In the end, I just needed to make peace with something unexplainable and finding a way to move forward. Seven months later, after my loss, I became pregnant with my daughter, Lola. And after she was born, I decided to do my doula training to start giving back, and that was how I would honor my son that passed away.
So I started to attend births, but for a long time, it was like facing a flashback of my birth. My son ended up passing away during the pushing phase, and every time I’m there supporting a woman through her birth, I’m secretly hoping, praying that this baby’s okay.
And of course, it did. Birth generally works, and the body is amazing. Supporting people through birth, again and again, it became a very healing thing. But what’s exciting is that I always had my camera with me from day one. Coming home from a birth, which was scary for me, and it was traumatic revisiting my moment of trauma, I would load my card up, start editing the photos, and I realized I was onto something special.
I’m documenting the first moments of somebody coming into this world. They’re photojournalistic. I don’t Photoshop. They’re raw, they’re very passionate, they’re full of all sorts of intensity on every end of the spectrum, but that’s life. And that fit energetically with who I am, the messiness, the good, the bad, the everything. And when I started to click that I was onto something special with this, it became a very healing thing for me. Birth works, life works, life comes full circle.
Ioana: And I would love to let our listeners know that you’ve been my doula twice.
Ioana: And it was magical. Working with you as my doula put me at peace because I knew that if my kid were to die in birth, it would be okay because you were okay. You were the perfect partner for our family and for me as a human in that very vulnerable and raw moment. And as you said, it’s so messy. It’s fricking crazy. But I felt so infinitely supported by you.
And damn it to hell, but your loss is your strength.
Heather: Yeah. Thank you.
And you know, I had to find a way to make beauty out of the madness or else I wouldn’t have survived it. I had to find a way for it to be part of my story in a positive way.
And it’s so funny, fast forward all these years, I’ve attended now almost 200 births. I am proud to say it’s been a fantastic journey. And most of those I’ve documented by taking photos, and so I have this vast body of work that’s mostly very private though.
A lot of times, I’m sitting across from potential clients, having a conversation with them, and the question comes up, “So what inspired you to get into birth work?” I’m sitting across these first-time parents that are blissful and in awe of the process and the future. I don’t want to put my story in their heads at all. I don’t want any of my experience to be part of what they’re even thinking about.
So, oddly, how I answer that question is, “Well, I had a really tough first birth, and there was a lot I needed to process afterward. And through learning so much about birth, I became inspired to give back.” Which is the understatement of a lifetime, but it is succinctly the truth.
You take the toughest moment of your life, and you can let it drag you down, or you can make something beautiful out of it. So I feel like getting into the birth work and photographing births was a big turning point for me creatively. Because beforehand, I was a tortured artist soul with imposter syndrome, but all of a sudden, my work had meaning.
Ioana: And you owned it.
Heather: And I owned it, and it was my story and my meaning.
It seems like every few years something comes along that knocks me off my feet like, “Holy shit, what’s this about?” Now I’m like an old warrior when it comes to trauma. I’m like, “Okay. This is what’s happening. It totally sucks, and I know it’s going to take some time, A. B, I’m going to get through this. C, there’s going to be some lesson along the way. And D, there’s going to be some magical outcome from it.”
Ioana: Do you think that takes curiosity about the unknown? Would you consider yourself curious about the unknown?
Heather: Oh, yeah. I’m a great believer in exploring the unknown. My favorite way to travel is to book a ticket to some corner of the world and fly there two days later with a book-sized backpack and a Lonely Planet and deposit myself in a strange country. I mean, that’s a big part of my process, don’t scratch the surface, go deeper into it.
When you explore more in-depth, that’s where the feelings are, and that’s the origin of emotional work. I feel like that’s what my photography is. It’s the depth of emotion. You know, everybody’s got a camera these days, everybody’s a photographer. The signature for my work is the emotions behind it.
Ioana: And your willingness to be naked in front of people.
Heather: And even though I’m not in my underwear, I’m very open and sharing the trauma I’ve been through and recovered from. We’ve all had staff, and it helps bridge a connection.
Ioana: It does. We were saying before we hit record how talking about the trauma we’ve had, and the pain can be very cleansing because there’s often so much shame that accompanies bearing it. So when I look at your work, especially the Life After Birth Project, I see it as an embodiment of talking about the mess, as a way of healing, like medicine.
Heather: We’ve been so perfect and plastic for so long, hashtag this blah, blah, blah, follow me, whatever. And we’re now in this era where we’ve got Instagram hashtag president. That’s the result of what our media has been for a long time.
People are craving to get real now, and those of us need to take the lead and be bold and show the messiness and the realness. Not everybody can handle it, and it’s not for everybody to put it all out there, but I feel like there’s a trend.
Ioana: If you and I are willing to be messy in public, it might give permission and courage to somebody else who was on the fringe to do the same.
Ioana: Hashtag president.
Heather: Hashtag dump Trump.
Ioana: Oh, my God. Yeah. I think people are aware we’re in a crisis. There’s such a disconnect.
Heather: And it’s not just the president, but it’s this system that put him in place. And it’s not just the political system that put them in place. It’s the whole society that put him in place. Having most people watch reality shows, reality president, watching everybody’s lives from the outside and becoming couch potatoes and passively taking in — realness dying away for a long time.
Ioana: Because people aren’t interconnecting. I’m guilty of this too, I mean I could watch Netflix for hours on end. I’ll admit it. And what happens when I do that is I stopped talking with my family. I stop communicating with my friends because I’m entertaining myself. I’m consuming other things. I’m trading in that real life, human connection, and the warmth with something concocted for my consumption. That’s so fucked up.
Ioana: But you’re able to cut through the bullshit because once somebody is on the other side of your lens, you have this magical ability to connect quickly. Sixty-two people and how many hours?
Heather: There were two sessions, three hours each.
Ioana: That’s like a marathon.
Heather: It was a marathon. In fact, at the gallery, there was wine and cheese and all that good stuff going on, and people kept trying to get me drinks. And I was like, “No, no focus, focus. Got to make it happen.” And by the time I shut the lights off and put my camera down at the end of the night, I was drained of everything.
Ioana: Did you realize you hadn’t peed all day?
Heather: I think I went, yeah. And afterward, the people running the event we like, “Oh my God, Heather, you were an animal. Here, drink this wine. Let’s take you out for food!” Yeah. I flew home the next day with a raging hangover and a nice big smile.
Ioana: Good stuff. Where are you taking the Life After Birth Project next?
Heather: We’re physically taking it to LA next. We’re going to have a gallery opening there. So I’m taking the show on the road. I’ll be in LA, making portraits of parents or whoever comes through the door. And I’m already psyching myself up, with lessons I learned from the last marathon.
Ioana: Let’s hear them!
Heather: I’m a birth worker, and I’m good at marathons that test me physically. The longest time I’ve ever been at a birth was 49 continuous hours. And when a person is going through labor, it would be entirely out of place to yawn and be like, “Okay, I’m gonna go take a nap. You keep doing that work you’re doing now.” I can’t tag out if I’m tired. So I’m good at having the stamina to focus on work.
But you know, the basics of physical endurance are to hydrate, have a snack, have quiet time to set your brain before the chaos ensues.
Ioana: You have your studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn. It’s called Nest Studio. How perfect! People get to come and nestle in this innovative place. Can you a little bit about what you do there?
Heather: It’s my girl cave, I confess. I got a studio space a little over two years ago. It’s a big open space, some 1400 square feet.
Ioana: It’s got a swing.
Heather: Yes. That’s how the girl cave has evolved. You know, I often return client emails while I’m in my swing. You see, I like to make work as ridiculous as possible so I can have fun while I’m trying to work. But I noticed that my phone was falling through the web and crashing to the floor. And I had no place to put my drink.
Ioana: Very important.
Heather: As an ingenious parent, I was like, “Uh, what I need is a stroller caddy.” You know, one of those organizers that hold your phone and your drink by the stroller handles. So I’ve attached that to it. The swing is going to evolve over the years to be the centerpiece of my girl cave.
Well, I’m a pretty ridiculous person in life. Like I said, if I’m not having fun, what’s the point? So, I’ve got gear there, my cherished Pro Photo lighting, and my C stands and all of that good stuff.
But then I also have a giant steel horse from the Acavallo Carousel, the Burning Man project I’m a part of. And the horse is on wheels, and it is a little rusty. And you are at risk if you get on it of getting cut or whatever.
Ioana: So, people! Do your tetanus shot before you visit her studio in Red Hook. And then you’ll be good to go.
Heather: Or assume the risk for the sake of art.
But anyway, my studio space is my creative home. It also meets an emotional need for me. I have two small kids, and we live in a New York City apartment. I tried for years to edit in the small back room before the kids were in separate rooms, and it was chaos and clutter and not being disciplined. There’s something about getting up and going to work and taking yourself seriously that helps. And I walk in, and the studio is me, and you can feel my energy everywhere.
You know, so much about photography is not about clicking the shutter. It’s all the other stuff, like editing, editing, editing. And so often I’m there for hours in tunnel vision from editing, and I’m like, “Ah, which photo? This phone or this photo?” And it’s all a blur. I keep rollerskates in my studio.
Ioana: Tell us all about it.
Heather: I have a pair of beautiful blue suede Moxi rollerskates. I’m such a fangirl, Estro Jen if you’re listening. Part of my process over the years when I reach that wall of editing tunnel vision where nothing is making sense, I take a break and skate.
Ioana: You do laps?
Heather: I’ll do laps. I will put on some music. I’ll blare it, and I’ll be as ridiculous as I want. You know, go mix it up. When you feel like you’re in a rut, shake it off. Do something physical. So, roller skating, that’s my pacing.
Ioana: I love what you’re saying, that it’s okay not to be productive every second of studio time.
Heather: I’m creative in spurts. I have a big rush of all the energy that I need, and then I’m like, “Oh, okay. I need to rest now.” I wish I were a little more steady, but yeah, it’s been serving me.
Ioana: It’s beautiful that you’re aware of it. Do you think people are built to sustain a level of energy, or do you think things ebb and flow?
Heather: I mean, for me and what I mostly see in life, there’s an ebb and flow.
Ioana: So why would you expect yourself to be steadier?
Heather: True. I feel like I’d be more productive if I were more consistent, but I’ve got to appreciate my madness, I guess.
Ioana: I’d rather be behind on a lot of things that I’m excited about, that make me feel vibrant and alive and that I have a purpose.
Heather: So true. I need to remember that.
Ioana: Than having a tiny fucking boring checklist. I mean, talk about perfection that doesn’t exist. Anytime you set yourself up to work on something that has meaning, and you know you’re in it for the long haul, there’s always going to be stuff that you can’t get to. I think that’s okay.
Heather: You’re right. It is much more of a blessing to have too much on my plate.
Ioana: Do you feel overwhelmed?
Heather: Definitely. At times I beat myself up that I should be doing more as a parent and with my home life. It’s chaos in the house. It’s sometimes chaos at the studio. It’s all hanging by a thread, yet there is a function in the beauty in the chaos.
Ioana: What do you think that is?
Heather: That’s probably an extension of who I am in my brain.
Ioana: Yeah. So do you think your internal environment is manifesting? Do you think your outside life is a representation of what’s happening internally for you?
Ioana: Kudos to you!
Heather: Oh my God, this is a therapy session!
Ioana: But that’s cool that you’re planting the seeds for a life that’s authentic to who you are.
Heather: That’s where it’s the most rewarding when it all happens. But the flip side of that is you got to know how to hustle. You can make great art, but if you’re not good at marketing yourself, putting yourself out there, you’re not going to eat. You’re not going to live.
And a long time ago, before I even fell into this good pattern of work, I always told myself that there are a lot of amazing artists that get little work. There are a lot of not so great artists that get a lot of work. And if I could just somewhere in the middle, I’ll be fine.
Years ago, I was at the Eddie Adams workshop, which I was so honored to be at. I was staff with the event, and for those of you who don’t know about the Eddie Adams Workshop, Eddie Adams was Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist. And his legacy is a free workshop for photojournalists. They take a hundred students in and match them with top photojournalists in the world. People with multiple Pulitzer prizes, stepping off planes from wars and overseas, National Geographic photographers. We’re talking people whose work blows my mind. So I was honored to be a part of that workshop years ago.
And when I was there, I had a conversation with another photographer who was also part of the staff. It was somebody who had excellent pedigree and awards. Somebody that I was very humbled to speak to. And she asked me, “Oh, so where did you go to school?” And I said, Well, I have a business degree in marketing from Ohio State.” And she laughed, and she said, “Pfft! That’s almost better!”
I don’t remember who that person was. I wish I knew, and I would thank them. That brief five-second moment has stuck with me all these years. I was like, you know what? That’s right. You got to know how to handle your business.
Ioana: Do you have a studio manager?
Heather: That’s what I need to do. I’m at the point where I need to spend money to make money, and there’s so much on my plate. I have to keep two children alive, fed, dressed, functioning, and homework manage. I’m not a helicopter parent, and I don’t go over the top on any of the stuff. It’s still a lot to handle.
Yes. I’m hiring a studio manager. If you want to come work with me, send me your info.
Ioana: There’ll be a swing on some roller skates and a horse.
Ioana: A horse sculpture, to be clear in case you’re tuning in now.
Heather: It’ll be a fun place to work.
There are so many opportunities I’m not capitalizing on because I don’t have the bandwidth. It’s good to respond to every opportunity that comes across your plate. You can’t make a judgment from an email what path some person is going lead you down.
Ioana: What’s your dream for your studio? What are you daring to build?
Heather: A hub of activity and people and art-making. A flurry of music and people on roller skates and my kids doing cartwheels in the background. But have it be functioning and sustainable.
So let’s talk about money. I don’t want to make money for the sake of making money anymore. Money to buy stuff, so you can have more things that you don’t miss when you’re away anyway. For me, it’s more about the experiences. I want to make money so that I can live and provide for my family.
I want there to be an underlying theme of something meaning something. The content of the work, having value for the greater good of the world right now. That’s why I’m close to the Life After Birth Project. Because it’s trying to change attitudes, and it’s emotional for people. It’s opening up their minds. There’s social value to it, and that’s a big thing for me. Money is a means to an end for more of this work to continue.
Ioana: Yes, fulfilling a purpose that’s greater than you. Most of the guests who’ve come on all have talked about this in their way. What we have in common is a desire for meaning and to fulfill a higher purpose.
Heather: And I feel like good art means something. There’s an emotional connection. You can walk past something in a gallery that seems “nice.” But the stuff that draws you in and hits you in the gut has an emotional component in it that makes you think, makes you wonder, alters you in some way. And that’s where the value is for me.
Ioana: And sometimes we can walk by a piece in a gallery or museum and not think much of it until we learn more about the intentions behind it. It’s related to the intimacy you describe. The more we learn about the artist or the situation from which they created, the more emotionally invested we become. And then we see the piece in a new light.
Heather: Totally, right.
There is a passion project that I want to start up. I’m so emotional about what’s happening in the media, society, and everything we’re struggling with these days. The strength of my work, other than the documentary work and the birth work, is doing portraits – bringing out people and showing them in a beautiful light.
I want to set up a team of a hair and makeup person, a stylist, and a writer. So that when an issue comes out in the media related to marginalized people, we respond. Say, for example, something comes out about the trans community—that the government is stripping away rights, or bathroom issues, or whatever. We’d respond immediately, by the next day, with a beautiful portrait of a person that fits that identity with something intelligent written about it.
So many issues related to marginalized people exist because a lot of people in this country are out of touch and unable to identify with them. It’s not in their life. They don’t think about it. Well, of course, they don’t want a transgender person going to the bathroom because they don’t understand it, they don’t know it, and it doesn’t affect their life.
My goal is to humanize the situation by creating a beautiful portrait and a digestible blurb about this person’s beauty. And serve it up in a gentle way. I think that could be very powerful.
Ioana: Who would you be speaking to?
Heather: The instant audience would be my Instagram followers. I’m from Ohio originally, been in New York City for 22 years, but I still have a lot of strong connections to the Midwest. And I have a diverse range of followers, a lot of them from back there.
You know, changing people’s attitudes towards what they don’t know, you have to serve things up beautifully and gently. I think somebody scrolling through my feed and seeing a beautiful portrait of somebody that isn’t a person in their world, but then seeing the humanity in that person, if served gently, is a great way to change some minds and attitudes slowly.
Ioana: I love the word slowly and all of us. It gets to the idea of patience.
Heather: Yeah. You gotta be gentle about things, you know? It’s like when you’re a kid, and your parents tell you to do this or else, there’s a knee jerk reaction for rebellion. But you show up things in a humanistic way, sweetly, gently that we’re all humans. We all have bodies. We’re all valid to be here. It’s a slow process.
I mean, what’s going on in the world and the healing we need, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. And I’m not talking just socially, it’s environmentally, everything. Well, environmentally, we need more of a sprint. That’s now or never. But generally, it’s like diverting a speeding freight train. If you’re going to turn a train around, it’s slow to break, and it’s slow to turn. You can get it going the other way, but it takes patience.
Ioana: And resilience, right?
Heather: A lot of energy and push. I feel like the next generation is going to get it. I joke with my other parent friends that I feel like I’m Terminator mom, raising these two little kids for God knows what’s to come with the environment and what they’re about to face. I mean, they have to go through active shooter drills in their school, and that’s horrifying to me. I’m so inspired by my children’s strength and what they’re rising to.
Ioana: Same. You’re reminding me of a conversation I had with my husband this morning. He showed me a meme. On the left-hand side was a teenage boy from WWII, storming the beach, and on the right, it was an adolescent from today complaining about his hurt feelings.
And it’s a meme, and that shit can be stupid, but it got him thinking about how much sacrifice and vulnerability was put out by his grandfather’s generation. All of the people who served in the military, maybe they didn’t see any action, but they trained for it, and they understood that they were possibly going into harm’s way. Our generation and our parents’ generation reap the benefits.
Heather: That’s why they’re called the greatest generation.
Ioana: But our children, to your point, things are changing for them. The children who are coming up now are hardcore, they’re aware, and they’re vocal that they’re inheriting a fucking shit show.
Ioana: Given to them by two generations of human beings who’ve phoned it in for the most part.
Heather: Right. And we’re about conspicuous consumption and over-consumption. You know, I also joke about having a 50-year and a 100-year plan for my kids beyond the years of me being here. Get some land outside of New York City. This city’s not going to be a place to be in a hundred years. I can’t imagine that. But have a homestead somewhere upstate near fresh water to be self-sufficient.
Ioana: Near fresh water and land to plant. Yeah, I don’t know if my husband was thinking about this actively, but now that we’ve been in South orange for three years, you can look outside our home, and he’s turned our side garden into a farm. He’s an urban farmer. And it feels great to eat your food, and to your point, the sustainability in doing that is undeniable.
Heather: Right. And also what you were saying about Dov digging in the dirt, I very much connect with that. Something is grounding about it, literally. But when things get out of whack for me, think about your elements. Think about what works for you to take yourself out of the dark or stressful moments.
Go for a walk, get fresh air. Earth, air, fire, water, food is always really grounding. Drinking water’s always really grounding. So those are some of the stress techniques that I still employ.
Ioana: Nourishing. What’d you call it? Earth, wind, fire? On ho, that’s a band. Hahaha!
Heather: Earth, Wind, and
Fire…Fire. Go to Burning Man. I’ve been a total of seven times. I started going in 2001, and it was a very different event back then. I go for the art. It’s about going to a giant expanse of open desert, filled with the craziest creative installations and art projects that stretch the wildest imagination, and all of the art is interactive. It’s about having the time and place and space and community to make giant crazy art. And then at the end of the week, it’s wiped off the face of the earth, like it never existed.
I went to it in ’01, ’02, ’03, and ’04, and I took a pause for two years and went back in 2007 when I worked with my friends to build the Acavallo Carousel. We drove it across the country from Brooklyn that was like running away with the circus. That was one of the best times of my life. Oh, so many photos from then. That’s a book project in itself.
But then, in 2016, we brought the kids to Burning Man. They were three and five, and we drove cross country for a full month. It was a great success, you know, everything was at kid level, and we camped with other families. I then took another couple a years’ pause, and I went back last year by myself.
So much of my life is family first. It’s also something that I struggle with creatively because I feel drained. Being a parent, you can feel a loss of identity, but going there in 2018 was huge for me because I regained a sense of self.
It was just me out there. Being out in the desert and building something out of nothing—and that’s what the city is for me—it’s creating this giant community of 70,000 people for one week, and one week only that’s all about exploring art, and then wiping it off the face of the earth, like it never existed. It’s very cathartic for me.
Ioana: It’s almost like a contradiction. Saying art serves me, my soul, it’s soothing me; it’s fulfilling my soul’s purpose—it can sound selfish. But, when there’s a balance between our soul’s needs and what we manifest is when the thing grows larger than us.
Heather: Yes. And talking about art and creativity – I’m very much a subscriber to the idea that we’re all creative. You need to open your channels. Something that’s helped me at times in my life when I’ve felt blocked is doing The Artist’s Way.
It’s a book that gives you tasks every week. It asks you to write morning pages every day, free association, whatever you want. Consistently write three pages a day first thing when you wake up. It could be nothing. It could be total junk. It can be, “I don’t know what to write” over and over and over again.
A lot of times, what’s happened to me is I get the stupid shit that’s stuck in my head out on the page, and then I hit my work with a clear head. And if you consistently write what’s going on in your life and your head something is going to make some sense at some point, and it’s going to help unblock whatever’s holding you back. Be it self doubt, whatever.
The other core idea is every week you go on an art escape. Take yourself someplace for an hour or two that helps feed you back. Something inspiring. It doesn’t have to be a gallery. Galleries are nice, but it can be anything. The idea is to empty and to fill back in.
The book talks a lot about the three-letter word God. A lot of people get hung up on that, but really when you think about it, what the book is intending to be is that the source of energy in this universe is, at its very nature, a creative source, and we’re all creative by nature. And if you unblock the channels, the creativity flows through you.
Ioana: Yeah. Let’s also get it out on the table that a lot of artists are timid about calling themselves with artists and declaring it.
Ioana: So that’s one thing. Another common thing I’ve noticed is people who are not in the traditional arts—painting, drawing music, the things readily connected with art—block themselves from creation. Because they don’t think they’re inclined or they don’t have the natural disposition to create something deserving of that kind of attention.
Heather: We’re our worst critics, and we throw up our blocks. And the problem is we’re all overthinking — analysis-paralysis, whatever, and holding ourselves back.
Ioana: Have you found that a lot of the people you’ve met on these shoots with the Life After Birth Project have become recurring voices in your Instagram DMs or emails?
Heather: Oh, I got flooded with DMs, so powerful. Here’s one of my favorite ones, from @askjanette.
“Heather. I cannot put into words how transformative your photographs are. In the short period of time today, where we shared space, you have touched my soul with your art and your personal experience. Thank you so much for being vulnerable and selfless and helping the rest of us heal from our losses and struggles. It was an honor to be photographed by you today, and I truly hope that our paths cross again.”
I mean, hearing that my work means something to somebody, even if it’s just one person, it’s worth it all.
Heather: I have an amazing, intense, beautiful, tragic story that I could tell about what this work means for me.
Ioana: I’m open if you’re open.
Heather: So, back to the birth work. One of the most amazing births I was called to attend was a stillbirth loss. It’s extraordinary how it came about. She wasn’t my doula client, and it was an odd, magical coincidence that I just happened to be at the right place at the right time overhearing about somebody’s tragedy.
I went to a fellow doula’s apartment, and they were on the phone having a very serious conversation with somebody. When they got off the phone, I asked, “What’s going on? Is everything okay?” And they shared with me that their client at 38 and a half weeks pregnant, just found out the baby didn’t have a heartbeat.
I instantly, without thinking, said, “Let me know if you want me to go. I’ll take photos of them.”
And the doula said, “Really, you would do that?”
And I said, “Absolutely.”
Because ten years ago, when I lost my son, my doula at the time, Mary Catherine Hamelin, who’s now a midwife, is a very talented photographer and took photos of the birth and after he passed away. And I have photos of him. When you go through something like that, losing a child and you have to hand your baby over to never see them again…it’s all I have now is the photos. That’s all I have. And those are so special to me I can’t even begin to describe.
So I instantly offered, “Let me know if you want me to go.”
I went home, and a couple of hours later, I got a text saying, “They would like you to come, and it’s not time yet. They’ll let you know.”
And I’m psyching myself up, deep breaths, grounding myself, going through a whole wave of emotions about what I was about to walk into the room of—basically so similar to my situation.
I was facing the worst moment of my life. So a couple of hours later, after the original message that they wanted me to come, I got the text, “Okay, it’s time to go.”
I, um, grabbed my bag, my camera gear like a pro, I ugly-cried the whole way in a cab and went to the hospital. The same hospital where I helped support families through so many births before, walking in and knowing everything corner of that labor and delivery and knowing the nurses there.
And it was quite a moment grabbing the handle of that door, going into that room, knowing I’m walking into a room full of strangers through supporting them through the worst moment of their life as a stranger myself. Deep breath, I opened the door, and I did it.
I doula-ed them through the whole process. Thankfully, it was quick. And I took the most amazing photos. They’re beautiful photojournalism of a family going through a loss, both the beauty and the tragedy of it at the same time. And, I was so grateful I could do that with them.
The irony of it all—the mom’s midwife was the same midwife who helped deliver my son, who passed away.
Ioana: What was she going through?
Heather: As midwives do, she was quiet, loving, and supportive through the moment. We rode home in a car after that, processing what we just went through. Making small talk with her, I said, “So have you had any other losses since my son?” And she’ said, “No, not until today. And here you are, a part of this.”
Ioana: That’s powerful.
Heather: You know, the connections we form in life is just incredible. Like how life comes full circle in so many ways and just being in the right place at the right time.
My favorite part of the story is I went to see the family a month afterward for the “postpartum” visit, which meant we sat around polishing off a couple of bottles of wine. Talking about life and loss and pain and how the fuck you move through something so devastating. And how to make peace with something that is so ready to destroy you.
That’s when this person told me the most astonishing thing I’ve ever heard. They told me that they had been told the story about my loss before they had me come, and that was the decision. And she said to me that in the moment of delivering her baby, knowing that she wouldn’t be able to keep that baby, knowing that I had gone through that same loss and that I had enough strength to show up and be there for her and support her through that, gave her power to do what she needed to do.
Ioana: That’s amazing, Heather.
Heather: That honestly is the proudest moment of my career. You can take something that feels so overwhelming, but when you work through it, and you can find a way and the strength and the energy to make it a beautiful part of your story and give back, there’s nothing better I could have done with my life than that moment right there.
Ioana: You’re unbelievable. It’s groundbreaking.
Heather: Thank you for listening.
Ioana: Thank you for coming on. We’ve cried like a hundred times.
Heather: I get real with it.
Ioana: Yes, you do. It’s your superpower.
Heather: And you know, in general, we can’t do all of this big work of sharing everything in our hearts and our souls without having a community behind us. So I’m just as good as the whole community that’s walking this path with me. And I’m so grateful for that.
Ioana: Yes. We cannot do it alone. No. We all need to be guided, uplifted, support it in some way, shape, or form.
Heather: And even just through the creative process. Listen, there’s enough work for all of us. Be a mentor, take mentees, help everybody uplift their work, somebody else’s voice is their unique voice, and it doesn’t infringe upon yours.
Heather: And you know, I feel like creativity is what’s ultimately going to help heal what’s going on in the world right now. There’ve been a lot of forces of destruction, and what is the opposite of distraction?
Ioana: Anything else on your mind?
Heather: If you get too egotistical, and you’re like, “Oh great, I got this.” That’s when somebody else is going to pass you by, or that’s when you lose your game. You need to keep growing, changing, learning, evolving. Nothing ever stays the same. Why should your work remain the same? You don’t stay the same.
I’m not the same person. It was five years ago, ten years ago. People that knew me twenty years ago need to re-know me now.
Ioana: Being alive is about being renewed.
Heather: Yeah. And if I didn’t keep growing and changing, I’d be stagnant. I’d be stuck, and I wouldn’t be feeling alive. So I’m always out there searching for new ways to grow and change. And I’m still trying to learn about everything I can. Not just about art, but every facet of life.
Ioana: Thank you so much for coming on.
Heather: It’s been an honor sharing with you.