For her prom, Lauren Freeman wanted to look like a princess. The Stony Point High School senior had gone to Dallas to pick out a dress she loved.
"It was a nice, simple, elegant dress, and it made me feel like that," she says.
In this year of the coronavirus pandemic, her prom, which was set for April 18, was canceled.
"Prom, it’s the big finish to the high school year," she says. "It kind of got taken away."
Her mom, Shon Freeman, wanted to do something special for her, she says.
She found photographer Heather Gallagher online and hired her to take pictures of Lauren in her prom dress.
And when Freeman told her daughter the plan, "her eyes lit up," Shon Freeman says. Lauren Freeman couldn’t believe that her mom would do this for her.
On a sunny day at the end of March, Lauren stood in her prom dress in a field of bluebonnets in her neighborhood while Gallagher sat in her car and took Lauren’s picture.
"The way Heather did it felt really safe," Shon Freeman says. Heather wore gloves and a mask and stayed at least 6 feet away. In fact, she never left her car.
Gallagher took some photos with just Lauren and some with Lauren’s dad, Willie Freeman Jr., who is in the Army and is scheduled to be deployed at the end of May.
It was a little weird at first, Lauren says. Neighbors stopped by and watched, but at least Lauren got to wear the dress outside of the dressing room, she says.
Now she has pictures of this time, pictures of her in her prom dress.
"I will definitely hang them up," she says of the photos.
Gallagher has been a photographer for 20 years and says her career "has lots of pivots," including this most recent one — the stay-at-home order during the coronavirus pandemic. "I’ve had to really kind of strategize to keep my business," she says.
"Part of being a lifelong freelancer is you’ve got to be a little bit crazy. (I’ve had) so many ebbs and flows, so many dry periods throughout my career. It feels like it’s the last paycheck."
Even though she’s had those dry spells, she says, "You never think something like this is going to happen in your lifetime. It hasn’t really fully hit yet."
Gallagher reexamined what she does. At its core, she says her style is more documentary photography, more photojournalism, less posing people.
She wanted to really document people and tell their story at this time of staying at home, she says. "The whole world is going through it."
So much of what she does is intimate, Gallagher says. It’s being in people’s homes and watching what they do and capturing those moments. Spring is typically a busy time for her. It’s Easter celebrations and Mother’s Day gatherings, weddings and proms, on top of her specialty of being a birth photographer and capturing a baby’s first year.
If she couldn’t be in clients’ homes, how would she document this time in their lives?
She rethought what is essential to her business. She would shoot from inside her car and use precautions such as wearing a mask and gloves. She also made wipes using paper towels and a bleach solution and would wipe down her car and all her equipment. She would only take payments electronically.
But would anyone want her to chronicle them during this time?
She put a survey on her Instagram account to ask her followers if they would be interested in signing up for drive-by photo shoots. Would they be willing to pay something to keep her business afloat and, if so, how much?
The answer came back as yes, they wanted her to document this time, and yes, they were willing to pay for it. Gallagher settled on a $30 for a quick drive-by appointment. For more specialized photo shoots, she charges more.
On a rainy Saturday, she had four different stops. It was everything from families wanting pictures of what they are doing at this time to capturing the day in which an event didn’t happen or how an event’s celebration changed.
She arranges the time and then calls the family as she’s getting close. Families step out onto their front porch or play in their yard.
It’s not really posed, she says. "I’m letting people be who they are."
Danielle Martinez signed up to have photos taken of her family, which includes husband, Andy, son, Nicolai, 4, and daughter, Ariel, 2.
"It’s good to document their growth," Martinez says. She wanted to show how much her kids have grown and how much they have changed.
Sometimes families are coming out in their pajamas midday, because that’s the reality of our lives during the stay-at-home order.
"Families are really hanging on by a thread," Gallagher says.
Sometimes they are riding bikes or swinging from trees, but sometimes they are still inside, and they stand by a window, showing that trapped-inside feeling.
Sometimes there’s an element of sadness, like Lauren Freeman and the prom that didn’t happen.
Or Riley Blanks and Jack Reed. On their 10th dating anniversary, April 4, they were scheduled to be married at her mother’s house in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Instead, at 4 p.m. on April 4, Heather Gallagher rolled up to their South Austin house and took pictures of Blanks and Reed in what would have been their rehearsal dinner attire.
Blanks and Reed had planned the wedding for two years, but by March 16, they realized they had to cancel their April 4 date because most of their family wouldn’t be able to get there and they wanted to have more than 10 people at their wedding.
"It wouldn’t have been socially responsible to continue," Blanks says.
Still, April 4 was a hard day. They watched movies. People dropped off flowers and sent cards. Her father made them breakfast for dinner.
"There were so many different aspects to the melancholy," Blanks says. "I don’t even know if we smiled in the pictures we took."
In the pictures, they are standing on the steps on their front yard under a vined trellis that would be a perfect wedding backdrop. She’s holding a bouquet.
"It was a weekend of imagery," Blanks says. She’s also a photographer and appreciated that.
"It’s really special that you can document this trying, depressing time on a rainy day in Austin, not even in the city where we're supposed to be," she says.
"Something I love about Heather is her ability to encapsulate true life happening in a way that feels like you can reach out and touch it," she says.
Blanks knows she’ll look back at those photos and they will hold a memory for her.
"It sounds corny, but you get to feel nostalgia," Blanks says.
They’ve rescheduled the wedding with all the same vendors and location for Oct. 10.
Gallagher sees these pictures as illustrating the power of the human spirit. "I can’t go to my prom, but I can do my picture. I can't have my wedding ... but I can still do my wedding photos. They are just trying to hang onto some sort of normalcy.
"We're not suspending disbelief. We're very aware everything is very different," Gallagher says.
Gallagher’s life at home also has changed. She and husband Tim Bullock have a 6-year-old son, Levon, who goes by Lee. Bullock is one of the owners of St. Elmo Brewing Co.
Like many parents, she’s trying to manage her business while doing kindergarten online with her son. This time has made her realize that she’s not a teacher. "I’m not stay-at-home mom material," she says.
Bullock is going to work because beer manufacturing is considered an essential service, but when he comes home, he changes his clothes before interacting with them and he wears gloves and masks at work.
Gallagher is being extremely careful herself because this month she is planning to photograph a home birth, where she also will be the doula, or birthing coach. She will wear a mask and gloves and plans to maintain social distancing, but she will be inside the home.
Birth photography is what she has become known for, and she’s had to really pivot this part of her business. The stay-at-home order has made birth photography and her work as a doula almost nonexistent.
The coronavirus has meant changes in hospital visitation policies. Moms giving birth and after birth are allowed to have a visitor, but they cannot have more than one. That means she cannot photograph births in the hospital or be able to be coach moms during birth.
She has been able to do some postpartum check-ins virtually as well as photograph new babies after they come home — again from her car.
Mirelle Leguia hired Gallagher to photograph the birth of her second son and his first year. The birth has been two years in the making because Luca is being carried by a surrogate. It switched to a home birth in part as hospital visitation rules changed. Those rules would have meant that the surrogate would have to choose between her husband or the birth mother or father as the one visitor. A photographer definitely would have been out.
"I really wanted to document the whole journey," Leguia says. She carried her first son and didn’t have a birth photographer, but her doula did take a 30-second video of her son Nico, 6, being born, which she’s watched multiple times.
Since January, Gallagher has been photographing this pregnancy, including a baby shower and a visit to the midwife. Leguia says she’s looking forward to having pictures of Luca with the surrogate and her husband and Leguia and her husband.
Leguia is hoping the pictures will really show "what it took to make this baby," she says.
"I wanted this story to be out there for other people who are struggling," she says, as well as to educate people who have criticized her or made ignorant comments about surrogacy.
"We've waited so long, and we're in the middle of the crisis," Leguia says. "Having this baby, it is scary, but all of us are taking great measures."
Staying busy and photographing real people living their real lives has been helping Gallagher get through this time.
"You have to maintain some kind of sanity," Gallagher says.
Gallagher is grateful that she still gets to witness life’s biggest moments, even if she’s having to do it from a distance or from her car, with gloves and a mask on.
"This is a super unique time in everyone's life, and I see so much value in it being documented," she says.