Tradition is important to Cindy Gallien. A sixth-generation Texan, she was an unlikely person to start a four-decade career in school photography but, not only has she done that, but she and her team have built Photo Texas Photography into one of the largest firms in the country.
Born and raised in Beaumont, Texas, located northeast of Houston, Gallien was a star athlete in high school, playing for the state championship volleyball team. Unfortunately, it was the early 1970s, so athletic scholarships for women were scarce. Coming from a poor family, Gallien chose to stay close to home and went to school at Lamar University in Beaumont. She lived at home and worked a full-time job to pay for her education.
Gallien majored in elementary education but was not looking to get into coaching, despite her athletic prowess.
“I started teaching kindergarten, which, by the way, maybe the hardest job I've ever had (even harder than owning a business),” she said. “Pretty soon the principal said, ‘Why don't you do the PE program in the elementary school?’”
“I was 20 years old when I graduated from college, so I was just a kid,” she recalled. Gallien adds she was continually being reprimanded by the principal for taking personal interest in the kids, like the time she wanted to take a five-year-old student with a toothache to her own dentist. “I was always a handful.”
Soon she was coaching t-ball teams and, based on the way she treated her players, was asked to start a girls basketball team at a prestigious middle school. She went back to school for her master’s degree, with the expectation of becoming a principal one day.
But, in 1979, those hopes were dashed when, when the independent school district refused to integrate, Gallien tendered her resignation. She was 23 with no other career prospects.
“We refused to integrate our schools and so I said, ‘I'm out. I don't want to be a principal anywhere.’ ”
It was her coaching connections, however, that lead her to school photography. She met Roger Wynn, the local “picture man”, who had taken Gallien’s own photos going back to first grade. He offered her a position, despite having no experience with a camera. Wynn advised her to listen and watch, providing support and encouragement.
“So took the job, no contract, no insurance, no retirement. Nothing,” she said. “The first thing Mr. Wynn said was ‘Go sign up some business.’ On day two, I went out and I started up a football team, the volleyball team, the dance team and the cheerleaders. What I didn't know is that put them all on the same day at the same time!”
She quickly learned from that and was soon booking more business than her male counterparts.
“I was the first woman in Texas to go into the school picture industry in any form or fashion,” said Gallien. “The other photographers asked, why did you hire her? Mr. Wayne said, ‘She's already booked more business this week than you guys booked all last year.’ So from day one, I started learning.”
Another milestone event for Gallien was on her first solo shoot, in August, 1978, in a little town called Zavala, Texas, up in East Texas. “The kids were all barefoot, obviously all very poor. It was a K-12 school in an old building that had been built during Roosevelt's New Deal. That's how old everything was.”
A mother, who had three children, approached Gallien and said she didn’t have any money for school photos.
“She said, ‘Ma'am, I'll do anything. I'll wash your car. I'd do anything if I could just get pictures of my kids,” said Gallien. “I responded, ‘No, no, ma'am. No, you're not washing my car. You're getting pictures of your kids. I'm gonna take care of it.”
Despite her good intentions, Gallien thought she was doing to be fired for giving away the product.
”So, here I am just 24-year-old kid,” she recalled. “I'm driving home and thinking, ‘I might get fired the first day on the job because I'm already giving away pictures. I thought those kids are the single most important kids in the world to her. Every kid who ever sits down in front of my camera is going to be the single most important kid in the world to somebody, right? So I need to make sure every time I take a picture, I'm getting the very best picture I can because it means so much to someone. It's so important.”
Fortunately, Mr. Wynn didn’t fire Cindy Gallien. He agreed it was a good thing to do.
That revelation in Zavala, Texas, informed the development of her career.
“As I began to grow, I made sure that everybody understood that the kids were the most important things. We treated them properly. We talked to them properly. We gave them enough time to get a picture.”
Gallien eventually relocated to Austin, Texas, where she had a substantial customer base. Her clientele was growing at such a high rate, she began hiring family members. After about 20 years, she eventually left Mr. Wynn but remained close to him and his family, after his retirement.
Photo Texas Photography continued growth
Armed with Mr. Wynn’s training and her own work ethic and empathy, Photo Texas began to grow. Today, the business has more than 100 employees, with offices in West Texas, Houston, Dallas/Ft. Worth, College Station, and other areas.
“To this day, if you ask any one of my employees, ‘what is the one thing we believe is the most important thing?’ They would tell you the child sitting in front of your camera is the most important kid in the world. We call ourselves the heart behind the camera. Every decision I've ever made, I go back to that.”
Despite the pandemic, Photo Texas Photography even managed to photograph students who were in virtual school. The company set up tents at schools, following all COVID-19 protocols, letting parents bring students on appointment for their school photos.
Don’t expect Cindy Gallien to slow down any time soon.
“I still love what I do,” said Gallien. "Schools are where my heart is."