A New London native, La Chale Gillis journeyed from the east to west coast and back before finding her passion for photographing New London’s youth.
Gillis, 52, grew up here in New London, but joined a group of friends in a cross country move to California in 1991. Looking for something different than the New England town she grew up in, the west coast offered new career prospects and a culture shift.
Gillis says she had the best of both worlds, experiencing growing up in a small town like New London, and then living in a large city like Los Angeles. In LA, she worked in QA control with Broadcom, a computer company, where she enjoyed a long and successful career. However, she found that her true love was doing makeup and hair, and honed her skill to eventually work events like the MTV VMA’s, the BET Awards, and NAACP Image awards. Gillis picked up a point and shoot camera to learn about light, document her work and build her portfolio.
Gillis say she was “living the life in LA,” but it didn’t last. She was faced with a life changing medical diagnosis: a relatively little known auto-immune disorder, Sjogren’s Syndrome, which can cause a myriad of health problems. When she and her doctors realized that her symptoms improved during visits home to CT where the air is cleaner, she made a tough decision: to give up her life in LA, and move back home to New London for the sake of her health.
After decades on the west coast, Gillis returned to New London in 2014, a major life change that she says humbled her. Spirits low, she said she didn’t expect to be around much longer, due to how badly her health had deteriorated, but she found a saving grace: Photography.
She was out taking a walk when she saw student athletes practicing outside at New London High School, and decided to take some photos of them. Gillis says “photography got me out of my depression.” She eventually moved up to shooting on a Canon Rebel T3, and started shooting football games at the local high school. Gillis was shooting a game and describes being “clobbered” by the team after they scored, not realizing how close the the action she really was, her glasses breaking in the scuffle. She found it exhilarating.
Gillis continued to hone her photography skill, shooting local sports and eventually being asked to volunteer her talents with the New London Talent Show, becoming a fixture behind the scenes for the non-profit that highlights the rich talents of our local kids and teens. She has earned a reputation for always being there for New London’s youth, and is called on to photograph them regularly.
Gillis, who has had dreams of going to film school and adopting a child, says her “biggest challenge is my health, my mind wants to do everything but body gets in the way.” For her, La Chale Renee Photography, has been a way to let those dreams play out.
With mentors who told her that “you’re either getting paid or you’re learning,” Gillis continued to expand her photography skills, and started taking on paid clients. She moved up to shooting on a Canon 6D and 70D and a Sony A7II. She has started to incorporate videography into her work, and says she does “everything for the kids because I don’t have any.” Along with the time she volunteers photographing New London youth, she also takes on photography jobs like weddings, proms, quinceañeras, church retreats and more.
Also serving as caretaker for her elderly parents who are in their 70’s and 80’s, Gillis manages her own health issues while giving back to the people around her in so many ways. And when asked about what words of wisdom she has for others? She says, “Work on being in love with the person in the mirror who has been through so much but is still standing.”
Brenda’s Note: This profile is part of my “Small City, GREAT Women” Photo Project, which celebrates the women of New London, CT who are doing great things. If you know a woman who would be a good fit for the project, NOMINATE HER HERE.