I am privileged and excited to be posting this interview of Melanie Blanding, an award-winning Humanitarian Photographer based in Roanoke, Virginia. To her many accolades, Melanie just added winner of the inaugural Focus for Humanity Fellowship grant. You can check out more of Melanie’s work at her website and women in war zones.
1. When and how did you get your start in photography?
I always had fun taking photos and there are silly stories about me as a child I could point to and say ‘I knew when…’ but the truth is I signed up for my high school newspaper staff senior year after spending the summer leading up to it doing a sort of mini-mentorship writing with an uncle who’s a journalist. A cluster of my friends signed up to write too and we thought it’d be fun to chronicle our final year together. Only the paper didn’t have a dedicated photographer or photo staff, so if you wanted your stories published you had to come up with the images. My first assignment was Friday night football; I borrowed my parents Minolta with strict instructions to bring it back in one piece – I’ve been tackled on the sidelines in games since, so it was wise advice at the time!
No one told me what to do, or not do, with a camera, on the sidelines, anywhere, so I photographed that game with no inhibitions. I was armed and confidant with the camera in hand as I strode up to players and literally stuck the camera in their face while they kneeled on the sidelines catching their breath, poured water over their heads to cool off and followed the action up and down the field as they ran. I think I was following the players into the locker room at half-time when a coach finally put his hand up to stop me! So I trekked back to the field and photographed half time festivities of the band, our mascot, cheerleaders and the crowd whooping it up. I had so much fun. I don’t even remember what the story was about but I remember the photos. The school had them developed and printed for me so my teacher and an editor saw them before I did. I came into class a few days later and they were buzzing about the photos. They were so impressed they decided to run a special feature with four or five of the images and asked if I would consider becoming the staff photographer. It was really encouraging and taking the photos was so much fun in the first place that it was a closed deal for me. I applied to photo school for college and never looked back. Funnily enough though, I’ve done hardly any sports photography since that first assignment.
2. When and how did you first become involved in using your photography to advocate on behalf of humanitarian issues, peoples and cultures?
My second year at Western Kentucky University I started a personal project that turned into one of my two most significant final projects throughout all of college. I was riding a borrowed bike in the neighborhood just down from my dorm and passed a house spectacularly decorated for Halloween. It had a wide front porch, very Southern, and every inch of the two-story house was covered in cobwebs, plastic spiders and other seasonal embellishments. There was no one around so I promised myself if I saw people there in the future, I would stop and make some images.
After Halloween the decorations came down and a Confederate flag went up. I rode by and saw a crowd of about 15 people from age three to sixty hanging out on the porch. My heart was pounding as I hopped off the bike and I approached the genial looking guy surrounded by kids. I explained my desire to do a photo series on front porch life, that I had admired their house, was impressed with the recent decorations and asked if could get started. He loved it and I spent the afternoon taking photos. I was around the side of the house with a few kids when one of the father’s (an extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins shared the house) came home and started yelling, I think at a dog, then some of the little kids, who weren’t even old enough to speak yet. My hands actually started shaking I thought he was so angry, then one of the 8-year-old children blew it off, saying he wasn’t really mad, that I’d know it if he were serious. I hoped he would never be seriously angry with me. I thought he’d be furious that I was there taking pictures, but he liked it, as long as I primarily photographed the children and only photographed him when he was playing with the kids. It struck me that an 8-year-old confidently allayed my 19-year-old concerns and I couldn’t shake the uncomfortable experience from my mind.
That afternoon was the start of what became a 7-month project documenting the lives of children living in poverty in the United States. I didn’t actually start advocating with these photos but documenting for this project itself opened my eyes to the realization that images could be used to communicate something more. From an early age I was fascinated by the diverse cultures and people groups I read about in National Geographic magazines or at prayer meetings for foreign missionaries at my church, but at the end of the day, they were as mythical to me as Zeus or Hercules. The people and issues were so far removed from the reality of my life and the chances of me traveling to see anything first hand were very slim, so they just didn’t seem real. I started getting out to a much wider array of places and meeting increasingly diverse people after that essay on children in poverty.
3. What are the humanitarian issues you are most passionate about, photographically speaking and why?
Photographically speaking? I’ve had the luxury of photographing the things I’m personally passionate about up to this point. So personally speaking, I’ve been most passionate about violence against women and chose to photograph the consequences of violence. It’s been happening in one form or another pretty much forever, can we please stop?! This has manifested itself so far in my life by spending a great deal of time either photographing, researching or speaking about sexual violence against women in the DR Congo. Rape is used as a weapon of war because the military factions, rebel, government and otherwise, in the region know how effective mass gang rapes are at destabilizing the family unit and community relations, thus indirectly affecting the agricultural sector, the economy and the educational opportunities for everyone involved. Photographically, the Congolese women are simply beautiful, even in their pain. Their resilience and faith amidst such violence and trauma is inspiring. I can’t imagine anything more physically, personally, emotionally and spiritually violating than the nature of the attacks against these women. If it happened to me, I don’t think I’d have the fortitude to keep going. These women are fighters and survivors. I want to be more like them.
4. How have you seen your visual advocacy bring real change to the peoples or issues you are passionate about capturing photographically?
One young girl I photographed in eastern DR Congo was later brought to the States for reconstructive surgery and was ultimately adopted by the American family who cared for her during the medical process. My brother, a friend and I started the non-profit Women in War Zones as a way to channel resources back to Congo and help people back in the States mount a response. The doctors at one of the hospitals where we documented extensively requested medical textbooks in French, so we raised funding to send a selection of textbooks to them; we sponsored scholarships for young women who wanted to finish their sidelined education; we channeled funding for medical care. More than anything, I think my work and/or speaking engagements have been a conduit to spur individuals onto their own course of action. Two young women from the United States are preparing now to move to eastern Congo and launch the Wamu Literacy Aid Program, named after one of the Congolese women that became a close friend while I lived there. They’ve done an incredible job raising awareness on their university campuses and encouraging their schools to make an active response as well. I think my work to raise awareness about the issues facing women in Congo has been part of a larger, growing advocacy movement. At a minimum, it’s made people here in the States stop and think about the terrible things happening to women in central Africa. Whenever we speak or host a gallery, we create time and questions for discussion afterward. We leave notebooks for people to write their thoughts or leave comments generated by the images.
5. What are some future humanitarian photography projects you are excited about and why?
I was just awarded a year-long fellowship with Focus For Humanity to pursue an international photo project. I have a few ideas in mind now that I’m discussing with the advisers and really value their feedback as I craft my next move. All of the humanitarian work I’ve done so far has been self-assigned or volunteer based work. It’s been difficult to get published independently and since a key point of humanitarian photography, at least to me, is to bring the issues into the public sphere, creating dialogue and raising awareness, I want to know how I can do a better job as a photographer and communicator. A component of the Fellowship is mentoring and business guidance so I can use photography for something I’m passionate about and in a way I can support myself. So I’m making a plan for the next 12 months now and will be updating folks through Twitter and other social media when things really start moving.
6. What is the most challenging part of using your photography to tell visual stories about humanitarian issues around the world?
I’m sure it’s different for each photographer. For me, there are actually two primary challenges that are directly related. The first is leaving a location when the problem hasn’t been alleviated and the second is getting the work out there in a way that can make a difference. I get attached to the people and places where I work. I hated leaving the DR Congo when women I became friends with were still facing the same dire circumstances as when I arrived. I can leave but in many ways they’re stuck. They’re certainly stuck in their country because no one would give them a visa to leave; they’re stuck financially because most of them have been cut off from their families and left with no education or way to support themselves. And they’re stuck in the perpetual violence. At least two of the women I was closest to were attacked again shortly after returning to their villages (they had received reconstructive surgery at the hospital where I was based). I have no doubt there are many, many more women with similar stories. I just cried as I waved goodbye, knowing all that the women are up against and there’s so little I can do to help them or prevent the violence in the first place. That’s why the challenges of publishing have been such a source of frustration. It isn’t enough for me that I post pictures on my own website. This work is not meant to be an opportunity to pat myself on the back or tack another adventure on the to do list. The point is to find an audience and stop the violence. These women have been silenced by their own communities and government for long enough. Silence has allowed the violence and a culture of impunity to flourish and until that stops the women won’t be safe or able to rebuild their lives and communities. Sexual violence is a taboo subject in Congo and it’s taken years of effort by Congolese and international aid groups to encourage communities to discuss and address the problem. If the women weren’t so hopeful that change can come, it would be hard for me to remain hopeful.
7. How have you seen your photography help change the way your viewers see the world and the different peoples and cultures you have encountered and photographed?
I’ve worked independently for so much of my photography that I don’t often hear the feedback. It can be rather lonely. I’m quite new to social media (just joined Twitter, working on setting up a blog and Facebook account). I hope taking better advantage of the internet will help me see and hear how viewers are responding. Right now, I get emails from people who’ve heard about the work, seen a screening of the film Women in War Zones or attended a gallery or speaking engagement; things like that. I love speaking engagements actually because it puts me in direct interaction with viewers. It’s motivating, encouraging and energizing to feel like you’re part of something larger than yourself and the work you’ve created. It’s broadening to hear other people’s perspectives and ideas they pull from my work that hadn’t occurred to me yet.
8. In your opinion what are the most important skills and equipment one needs to be effective in advocating on behalf of peoples and cultures?
You need a passion for the cause you’re advocating and vision to see it through. It’s cliché, I know, but it’s true. Seriously though, how can you fight for something you don’t care about or believe in? For all the traveling I’ve done, I’m very American and have this ingrained sense of justice; our Bill of Rights. They’re human rights. Obviously not everyone agrees with all of them, but our founding father’s established a land of opportunity and a greater degree of freedom for the ordinary citizen than the “known” world recognized at that point. They were actually the political minority, but they had a vision and the passion to sustain their fight. I think you need that same energy and commitment if you’re going to tackle and advocate an issue effectively. The equipment will take care of itself. Of course it’s nice to have top of the line gear, but people make compelling images with their iPhones and Holgas. I was just reading about a pro photographer, in Iraq or Afghanistan I think, who talked about shooting the grizzly sort of working war images with his pro camera but then using his iPhone when he was hanging out with the soldiers on down time. The soldiers were all doing the same thing so it seemed more natural and less invasive than his pro camera. And he made compelling images of soldiers’ humanity. I carry at least a point and shoot or my cell phone everywhere I go. No, they can’t do everything a D3 or 5D can, but if you wait to have the best of everything before you’ll start anything, you’ll be sitting around a long time. Start with what you have and keep moving forward. That being said, I’m getting a new camera as part of the Focus for Humanity fellowship, so feel free to kick me off my soap box…
Part of it is my faith. I’m a Christian and Jesus taught that we have a responsibility to literally care for widows and orphans. I think He meant that further: to care for and advocate for any who cannot advocate on their own behalf. I was well cared for as a child; frequently supported as I pursued higher education; and I’m being assisted again now as I launch my career. I suppose it’s the pay-it-forward mentality and I hope that if the situation were reversed – if I were in desperate circumstances – someone would advocate on my behalf. Hurricane Katrina hit our coast as I was returning from a few months in Africa and it hit me just how easily we, as humans, descend from so-called ‘civilized humanity’ to absolute chaos and violence. At our core, we are the same in nature as any people throughout the world, for good and for bad. It’s naive to think that we’re somehow above the violence that happens elsewhere. An attack on our internet and electronic technology could bring the United States to a grinding halt. People do crazy things when they’re threatened and struggling to survive. I may have slipped off topic…I just think it’s important to be aware of what’s happening in the world and how we impact each other. I’m driven by a sense of responsibility and the hope that others would equally come to my aid in a time of need.
10. What advice would you give to others who want to begin to visually advocate on behalf of the peoples and cultures of the world?
Photograph something or some issue you care about, especially early in your career or advocacy efforts when you have the flexibility of time and aren’t responsible to so many other people, editors, bills, etc. Your heart really has to be in it when you decide to tackle the big issues or you won’t last very long. An adrenaline rush is just that, and it’s quickly over, so don’t just jump on something that sounds temporarily exciting or do it to impress others. And start local! ‘Exotic’ locations don’t make great pictures, an insightful photographer does through compelling composition whether they’re in the DC suburbs or Timbuktu. There are people in the US who could use an advocate and it wouldn’t cost you a fortune to tell their story. Finally, don’t forget to take care of yourself. I got lost in caring for others for a while and felt really guilty about taking time to process and recover from what I heard or witnessed. I convinced myself that resting was laziness or a lack of motivation. There’s always more to do, so prioritize your own health as well so you don’t burn out.