If you haven’t had the opportunity to check out the photos from our open house and 50th anniversary celebration last year, you really should: They are fantastic. We can say that because none of the credit belongs to us; instead, it’s the result of the skill, passion, and kindness of local photographer and doula Elizabeth Gritzmacher. Recently, we had the opportunity to chat with Elizabeth over email and learn more about her journey toward each profession and the spirit of compassion that fuels her work within both.
AA: Can you share the story of how photography became a passion and a career for you?
EG: When my dad gave me my first point-and-shoot film camera for my 8th grade graduation, I was so excited. I took it with me on all my adventures that summer. I have an album full of photos documenting that time in my life: rafting down the John Day River in July, clothes strewn about my
Throughout college (and the wilderness and international adventures during and after), I always carried a camera with me. I tried creative new angles, played with shadows, tried to capture the stories of my journeys, and started understanding composition. Eventually, other people started referring to me as a photographer (you can imagine how exciting that was to hear at first!), and I was invited to work on a few projects professionally. If I wasn’t ready to consider myself a photographer, the universe seemed to have a different message. I decided to listen: Maybe this art, this work, was meant for me after all.
I began taking classes and prioritizing my artistic and professional development, realizing that hard work and dedication would get me further than talent alone. It was so empowering to improve at the craft, and each new class launched me into exciting new worlds of possibility. I loved what I was creating more and more, and although I started hearing murmurs of, “everyone is a photographer these days, you can’t do that,” I had already mastered ignoring the voices, internal and external, that told me I couldn’t do what I loved.
For the past six years or so, I’ve turned this nearly lifelong passion into a career, dabbling in wedding, fashion, and commercial work until I found my niche in the world of birth and new parenthood.
AA: Speaking of birth, you’re also a certified doula. Can you tell me more about the practice, how it became a part of your life, and Wildwood Birth Collective?
EG: In January of 2018, I was invited to photograph a friend’s birth. Being a witness to the power and beauty of that journey was one of the most impactful, transformative experiences of my life. I knew immediately that I had found my calling. I also learned from my friend’s experience how critical support, guidance, advocacy, and hands-on comfort measures are to help ensure the best possible outcomes for parents and baby. I had been searching for a way to connect photography to the need I felt to do work that made a positive impact on the world. Stories of injustice and inequality around the world had guided my pursuits through college and graduate school, and I was looking for a space where my creative, moral, and intellectual interests would overlap and have a positive impact on my local community.
Pregnancy, labor, childbirth, and new parenthood—these are exciting, trying, beautiful, and vulnerable times. Though we’ve made great strides in medicine, that progress isn’t always doled out equally. And while the hospital model of care during childbirth comes with a sense of increased safety, it cannot provide the warm arms of community support before, during, and after that growing families need and deserve. Doulas play an important role in stepping in to fill that gap.
So, what is a doula? In its cleanest definition, a doula is a person who provides emotional, physical, and informational support before, during, and after labor and childbirth. A more complete version shows the relationship we build, the presence we offer, the hands-on tools we provide to help manage the intensity of labor, the education, and the reassurance that “this is normal, this is okay, and you can do it.” We help our clients advocate for themselves and teach them how to ask questions, take time in making decisions, and feel some sense of agency over the birth process while they’re in the hospital. We also offer breastfeeding support and check in about the big changes of the postpartum period. We help people feel connected, supported, seen, and heard during one of the most exciting and most vulnerable times in their lives.
The numbers are reassuring, too. Multiple studies have found that having doula support during childbirth has a significant positive impact on birth outcomes, including a 39% decrease in unplanned cesarean birth, shorter labors by an average of 41 minutes, and a 31% decrease in the risk of being dissatisfied with the birth experience, among a range of other benefits.
Why photograph birth? Birth photography is a new and growing field, and it surprises some people to think that anyone would want to photograph it at all. I like to think of that as a cultural problem: The journey of pregnancy and childbirth is one of the most transformative experiences in our lives, and one that historically hasn’t gotten a lot of attention in art or media. Luckily, that is starting to change, and people all over the world are shining a light on childbirth and the postpartum period, recognizing it as a time to celebrate the unrivaled power of women and birthing bodies. Pregnant people build another body out of their bodies and the raw material of a little DNA—how badass is that?
In mid-2019, I met my doula and creative partner, Vera Hyatt, because we were the only two people offering pro-bono labor support in Spanish in our practicum program. We met each other to work on our medical vocabulary and discuss providing back-up support to one another, and halfway through our very long first lunch, we realized we wanted to join forces. A few months later, Wildwood Birth Collective was born. We offer labor and postpartum doula services, as well as pregnancy, birth, and newborn photography and videography. We believe everyone deserves doula support and offer a sliding scale for those in need. We also believe that artful photography and videography provide priceless documentation of some of the most special moments in our lives.
AA: You’ve been very generous to Animal Aid and other nonprofits with your time and your photography skills—thank you! Can you share why volunteer/pro-bono work is important to you and if there are particular types of causes you’re drawn to?
EG: Those reading this can likely relate: I was born and brought up with a strong sense of the importance of community and of looking out for the most vulnerable among us, human and non-human alike. Volunteering my time to a cause has a way of giving back to me probably more than I put in: It brings meaning to my days and helps me feel connected to others and to what’s important in life. My life is always better when I make time for service work, and I love that I have a skill that can provide a tangible and helpful service.
I sort of fell into volunteering on the animal support circuit these past few years; it happened more by chance than anything else, and I’m so grateful the doors opened when they did. It’s been wonderful to get to meet and work with so many people who have a heart for animals—those who care for animals in need have some of the biggest hearts around. It’s an honor to get to play a small role in this community.
AA: When not at work as a doula or a photographer, what are some of your favorite activities?
EG: It does feel like I work every day of the week sometimes, but I do make sure to carve out some time for hiking, camping, backpacking, and general outdoor adventure. I’ve traveled a lot in my life and have spent a significant amount of time living and working in Spanish-speaking countries. As I get older, I’m called less to the nomadic life, but I’m grateful for the adventures and connections I’ve made with people and animal friends all over the world. Shout out to Mangey dog in Nicaragua, and Muluk and Chuen, Mexico’s two best cats, especially!
AA: As a native Portlander, what is your favorite PNW landmark and why?
EG: It has to be the Gorge. It is a place I can’t believe I used to take for granted, having grown up with it in my own backyard. But I found as I traveled the world and was regularly moved by the staggering beauty of this planet, when I came home I saw it with fresh, awakened eyes. What a natural wonder! Full of fascinating natural and human history, split down the middle by a mighty, life-giving river. I love taking the train towards Montana and leaving Portland just before sundown, chugging along the railway through the gorge, watching the trees fade to brush, the lushness turn to desert, passing the dams and windmills that help power our cities and towns. The Pacific Northwest has a special kind of beauty.
AA: Do you share your home with any companion animals at the moment, or can you share about one from the past?
EG: I have no sweet loves at home (aside from my sweet partner), but I’ve been lobbying for us to get a pup. I grew up with a half rhodesian ridgeback, half chocolate lab named Moki, and an orange and white cat we called Kitty Garp. When I was in my early 20s, I got the most beautiful blue-eyed kitty from the Humane Society, and I named him ‘quarius. ‘quarius (I insisted on an apostrophe and no capitalization) was a wonderful companion. He snuggled on his terms, woke me up too early every single morning, loved to be petted, and most of all, loved to play. His favorite toy was a feather on a string at the end of a stick. When he was ready, he’d drag the stick over to me to let me know. He became an acrobat as I whipped the feather from side to side, doing endless backflips—either trying to catch the feather or just to show off, we’ll never know—over and over and over again. I still sometimes cry (like as I write this!) when I think about what a precious guy he was and how he left the world too soon.
Looking for someone to help you capture life’s special occasions? Interested in doula services during your pregnancy? Reach out to Elizabeth and Wildwood Birth Collective to learn more about how they can support you through these transformative moments.