Melissa Whittington

Q&A: Birth Photography and Island Life with Melissa Whittington (Paia, HI)

From massage therapy to acting to owning a frozen chocolate banana stand, Melissa Whittington has done it all. But nothing comes close to her love of newborn photography.

“It’s such a delicate time for people, and to be part of that experience is such a privilege,” she says.

After leaving Georgia for Hawaii, she decided to embrace her love of newborns and photography and Rainbows and Hot Fudge Photography was born. 

Read more: Why you should hire a newborn and maternity photographer

Maui has a way of keeping us present and grateful for what’s in front of us,” she says.

We talked to Melissa about life on the island, birth photography, and her deep love of Willie Nelson. 

You left Atlanta for Maui fifteen years ago. What inspired that move?

MW: You know, I was young and looking for an adventure. I’d been working as a massage therapist; I owned my home and had my little business. But I always knew I didn’t want to settle down in Georgia - I wanted to go to Hawaii. So one day I thought, ‘I’m doing it!’ I sold everything and bought a one-way ticket.

I didn’t know a soul here. I had no plans or arrangements. I actually ended up choosing Maui just because Willie Nelson lives here, and I’m a big fan. I thought that if this was the island Willie chose, it’s good enough for me.

Photo: Rainbows and Hot Fudge Photography

“I didn’t know a soul here … I thought that if this was the island Willie [Nelson] chose, it’s good enough for me.”

It’s been such an experience, leaving Georgia and the small-town life for this whole other world. It’s really worked out for me; I have no regrets.

How did you get into photography?

MW: I’ve literally been behind the camera since I was a little kid. Any excuse I had, I would be borrowing somebody’s camera. I just loved taking pictures, and I ended up taking photography all four years in high school. I’d skip lunch just to hang out in the darkroom. There’s so much you can do with photography. I really loved the process and the freedom; it can be paralyzing sometimes, but it can also be really inspiring.

After high school I was able to get a job at a local photography studio. I’m from a big family so I’d been taking care of babies since I was old enough to walk. I’ve always been good with them, so when people would make an appointment for a baby session they’d get sent to me. That’s where I started getting into newborn photography.

When I moved to Maui, I was a little intimidated. There’s something like 2,500 professional photographers here, and this is a very small island. So I shied away from the idea and kind of abandoned part of myself for a little while.

I did some professional acting; I bartended; I even had a frozen chocolate banana stand for a while. Then a few years ago I thought, ‘What do I want to do? There are so many things that I love and I’m passionate about, but what can I do for work that isn’t going to feel like a job?’ Then it hit me – duh! I love babies, I love building sets and creating, and I love photography. I put them all together and decided I was going to be a newborn photographer.

So I made yet another bold move in my life - I cut the cord and dove right into professional photography. It was like, what took me so long?

Photo: Rainbows and Hot Fudge Photography
What impact has Maui had on your approach to photography?

MW: Maui has a way of keeping us present and grateful for what’s in front of us. I’ve learned to say to myself whenever I miss a shot, ‘That was just for me. That moment wasn’t meant to be captured and shared; that was just for me.’ Even now, when we miss a moment or a smile in a shoot, I can say, ‘That’s okay, that was just for us to enjoy.’

You’re a registered birth doula. Tell me about that journey and how it’s crossed over with your photography work.

MW: I was always interested in birth work outside of photography; it had just never lined up with my life. I was marketing my business through Instagram, and I started following a couple doulas. One of them ended up contacting me. They were putting on a three-day intensive training course, and they asked if I wanted to photograph it, and if I wanted to take the course while I was there. I had recently photographed my first birth, so the timing was perfect.

Being in the birthing room, it’s such a sacred space and such an important time for the family. Once I had personally experienced the gravity of the situation, I knew I wanted to be able to offer my support. If there was help needed, I wanted to know what was happening. I wanted to be there for them.

Photo: Rainbows and Hot Fudge Photography

“Being in the birthing room, it’s such a sacred space … to look at birth photos, they’re just so powerful. I dare you not to cry.”

It’s such a delicate time for people, and to be part of that experience is such a privilege. To look at birth photos, they’re just so powerful. I dare you not to cry. The emotion when a new member comes into a family for the first time is something you can’t replicate and to have it captured is so beautiful. 

Outside of creativity, outside of art, [birth photography] gives me such a deep purpose in what I’m doing.

In your photography, you’re known for using a lot of intricate props and sets. How did that start?

MW: For me, props were a big appeal. I get to play with designs and put fuzzy little blankets and cute little toys with fresh little babies. I’ve spent a lot of money on tiny things, and I love them. 

The props are fun. I’ve got little rocking chairs, little horses, baskets – man I love to put a baby in a basket. My dream is to have a large studio where I can work with clients to create custom sets for whatever vision they create in their imagination. Right now, I’ve got a few designs that I’ve been working on and a whole shed filled with half-finished props that the world may or may not see. 

Photo: Rainbows and Hot Fudge Photography

Everyone has such different tastes. Before a family comes in I always ask about the style of their home, the colour of the baby’s nursery, that sort of thing. Or I’ll take a look at their [Instagram] feed to figure out what their style is, so I have things available I know they’ll like.

I’ll have my props displayed on a shelf and my blankets rainbowed out in my studio for [the family] to choose from. I always tell them, “You’re the one who’s going to have to look at these photos, so let’s make them something you like.”

Where did the name Rainbows and Hot Fudge come from?

MW: In a nutshell, it’s how I want my business to feel: like we can do things that are serious and have reverence to legacy and the photographic process, but we can also have some fun. Throw some color in there. Be silly! I wanted people to say the name and know what my business feels like, and for me that’s Rainbows and Hot Fudge.

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