PhotoVoice is interviewing established photographers to gain a wider insight into the power of photography and the different approaches to ethical issues. This month, we interviewed renowned photographer, Melody Melamed on her photography and passion for the medium.
Melody’s widely reviewed series ‘Work in Progress’ shares intimate moments of the trans-masculine community. The portraits have been celebrated for their refusal to relay a simple, easily-relatable story to our mass cisgender society.
Where did it all begin and why did you chose photography and not another medium?
The most honest response to this question is that I had no other choice; photography was the only medium that ever resonated with me, and made me feel like I could create without any boundaries. As a child and teenager, I had experimented with all kinds of creative mediums, but nothing ever came naturally to me until I picked up a camera. I was 16 years old, and I remember the relief I felt when I realized that I didn’t need to force myself to figure out what I was actually good at anymore. From that point I knew without a doubt that the universe had willed the camera into my hands, and that photography was what I was meant to do.
Tell us a bit about your approach to photography.
I have always wanted my role as an image maker to mean something. In realizing that photography is a tool for communication, and a powerful tool, I know that being an image maker comes with a lot of responsibility.
I am most interested in people as subjects, and I thrive on the moments where I can tap into someone on a deeper, more intimate level. In order to get there I must start by building a sense of trust between my subject and I. When this does happen, the image has the power to evoke a strong emotional response from the viewer (whether it be positive or negative) and forces the viewer to ask deliberate questions specific to the work.
How do you decide if something is worthy of being captured?
Most often, I am drawn to people who have impactful stories to tell— subjects who have battled with some part of their identity, which I believe all human beings can relate to in some way. I am interested in helping to tell these stories through an evocative tone, in a way that shines a bright light on the power of having a strong sense of self.
Everyone has a story to tell, something to say, but I think certain people are more willing to open up and show us who they truly are—those people interest me the most.
Is there a single image that defines you as a photographer?
It would be very difficult to choose just one image, but there is one portrait in particular which I always refer back to. It’s a portrait of Derek, a young transgender man who I had the pleasure of photographing for my personal project titled “Work In Progress”, which explores the Female to Male transition through intimate portraiture.
I love this image because I see such a strong presence in his demeanor, in his eyes—although such a simple portrait, Derek reminds me of greek statue. He is regal, self- aware, self- confident and at the same time he is quite vulnerable.
Can photography bring about positive social change?
Yes, absolutely! In referring back to my previous response, it is important that my work means something, not just to me, but to my audience. I always think about what I am trying to say, what message I am sending out into the world—because it certainly makes a difference. Whether the response to the work evokes confusion or clarification about something, I am satisfied to know that at least it is thought provoking.
All these messages being received by our eyes and our minds help mold our understanding of this world, and if as an image maker we can help create a challenging, yet active dialogue with our audiences, then I believe we are absolutely helping to bring positive change.
Has charity photography changed since you started?
Yes, I definitely think it’s starting to. Organizations are becoming more aware of how to really connect with their audiences rather than using a generic approach. This is a good thing.
What is your approach to the ethics of photography?
As a portrait photographer, the ethics of how I approach my subjects is top priority. As an image maker you are essentially taking the essence of someone and trapping it into a time capsule; that part of the subject is no longer theirs once it’s etched into the film. Not only do you have to treat the situation with respect, but you must be appreciative, compassionate and kind. Like I said before, being an image maker comes with a lot of responsibility, and it’s important to remember this sentiment every time you pick up that camera.
What is your greatest achievement as a photographer?
Having my series “Work In Progress” published in the New Yorker magazine. It has been a few years since the article was published, but till this day I am still awestruck by the fact that my work was written about in one of the most influential highly respected publications in the world. It was the first thing that happened in my career that helped validate the direction I was going into as an artist, and I am so grateful for the opportunity.
How important do you think equipment is?
“He who does the most with the least, wins!” -Clay Patrick McBride. That is a quote from one of my teachers from graduate school, and it has stuck with me ever since. In my experience, you can make a good picture with almost nothing. It’s not so much about what equipment you have, but how you use what you do have in a proactive way.
Do you have any advice for aspiring photographers?
Perseverence. That is the one true thing I know. It’s like running up a mountain—right at the moment when you think you want to stop, you have to tell yourself to keep going. Don’t let your mind tear you away from getting there, because your body can handle it just fine. If you keep on going, the moment you get to the top, you’ll be so glad you didn’t stop.