Telling stories with a camera
Melanie Fiander first started dabbling with her mom's camera when she was 14 years old. Nearly two decades later she still hasn't put her trusted tool down. The 33-year-old photographer just launched her first solo art show, Salt Stories: 10 Years Later, at Bermuda Society of the Arts.
Her 44-piece collection tells three different stories. The commonality among them is salt — found in the ocean water, the hands of a loved one and the sweat on a wedding dance floor.
Ms Fiander tells us more ...
Q: What was the inspiration behind your latest exhibit?
A: Salt Stories is a collection of images that make up three different photo essays. Each tells its own story. One of them is about my great-aunt Mary Gamba. My family is Italian-American and that plays a big part in the story. My great-aunt is 91, but still holds on to her Catholic faith. The images go from light to dark in terms of the colours. That's meant to symbolise her dimentia. The days start out very clear, but as it goes along she gets very confused. I think a lot of people can resonate with that. I shot these photos over a weekend in October when she was getting ready to move to California. The pictures are shot in our family house in Brooklyn, New York where she lived her entire life. So while I was taking pictures it was almost like saying goodbye to that house we spent so much time in. If she's not there, it's not the same.
Q: What are the two other photo essays about then?
A: There's the fishing essay which is about my husband [Jim West] and my father-in-law [Blake West]. They are a father-son fishing duo. When I met my husband I thought deep- sea fishing was such an unusual profession to have. I had so many questions about what they did, what kind of fish they caught and where. I was a city girl. But funnily enough my father's side come from New Brunswick and were a fishing family. The third essay showcases a bunch of wedding pictures shot at different weddings over the years. There are photos of the girls getting ready, down to the ceremony and reception, so it gives you an idea of what the whole day would be like. I included those in there because that takes up such a huge part of my career as a photographer. Shooting weddings and commercial photography is a big part of who I am and what I do.
Q: How did you get your start as an artist?
A: It kind of started when I was 14. I was a hardcore swimmer and wanted to take pictures of my friends swimming in the races. So I was constantly grabbing my mom's camera and running to take pictures and it just became something fun to do. Then at the end of the swimming season there was a slide show and I got to create that. That's when I first realised that I liked telling stories with pictures.
Q: How did it evolve from there into what you do now?
A: So in high school I was very interested in art. I don't think I ever thought I would become a photographer. I was interested in sculpting, painting and those mediums. If you were allowed into the photography class at my high school it was a big deal because you had to use chemicals. So I took my first photo class my senior year and by the time I got to college that was all I wanted to spend my time on — being in the dark room. I think a big part of it was there weren't a lot of photography students at the school I went to, Lynchberg College in Virginia. So it was my personal time. Whatever music CD I had, I could blast as loud as I wanted. I also had a really great photography professor and we talked about everything in that dark room — from photography to politics and other classes I was taking. Patty Lyons was a really great mentor to me. She encouraged me to further my education at a school in Portland, Maine called Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. I didn't want to go. It was so cold up there. It was all about journalism and documentary and how to ask questions and that kind of thing. I applied anyway and got a scholarship to go, which is something they only give to one student each term. I moved up there in January 2005. The state of Maine had more snow than they'd seen at any other time. I didn't even own any snow boots.
Q: So what interested you about the documentary style of photography?
A: It was really fascinating. I worked on three photo projects when I was up there. I photographed a Jesuit priest for four months. I was hoping to get some kind of scandal out of that, but he was just a normal guy. I also photographed a French chef, as well as a well-known communist in Maine. Once I finished at that school I was all gung-ho about documentary and journalism and said “I want to save the world”. I finished up in May and went to graduate school immediately after in June. I was 23. I went with the idea I'd become a war photographer, but two years later my thesis had nothing to do with war photography. There was still an emphasis on documentary and telling stories. But my style had changed.
Q: So how would you describe what you do now with your photography business, Fiander Foto?
A: With my wedding pictures I'm trying to tell a story. I like to shoot my events with a photo journalistic twist. That's just because of how I was trained going through the documentary school. I also enjoyed this style of photography more because it's more genuine and captures a stronger emotion of what's going on. I also shoot some more traditional portrait-style photos. But that's just because everyone's mother-in-law wants a picture of the family.
Q: When it comes to your show what do you want people to get from your work?
A: It's something a bit different with each of the photo essays. When it comes to the piece on my aunt I'm hoping they leave with maybe a little bit more empathy towards people with dimentia. It's very easy to become frustrated or mad or sad even. Last week was my great-aunt's birthday and after I got off the phone with her I was very sad. It was the first time I realised I would never get those conversations back. We have to communicate differently now, but one thing I'd like people to know is it's not up to the person with Alzheimer's to adjust, we have to adjust to them.
• The exhibition is at City Hall now