Introducing New Zealand’s only Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Melanie Burford. Some of you will be fascinated to see how life after the Pulitzer has unfolded, others will be captivated by this talented woman. My sincere thanks to Melanie for sharing her thoughts on things photographic.
When I first met you as a young photographer I recall you working for The Evening Post newspaper in New Zealand. Your father John is a well known New Zealand photographer and you looked to be following in his footsteps. Within a few years you were off working in Dallas, Texas as a newspaper photographer. A dream job for a young New Zealand woman.
While there the catastrophic Cyclone Katrina hit New Orleans and the surrounding regions, that was in 2005. As a photojournalist you set off to document the event, the emotional trauma on families and so much more. This resulted in one of the highest accolades being bestowed on Melanie Burford. The Pulitzer Prize along with your team from the Dallas newspaper.
I’m sure this changed your career path in many ways. Soon after this you moved to New York where you were one of the founding members of Prime Collective.
Sometime after that you were whisked off to Bergen in Norway by a tall handsome young man where you have made a new life and are raising two very active little boys.
I read that you are still inspiring photographers around the world and so today I want to ask you a few questions about your photographic journey to share with your many followers in New Zealand and abroad. Your latest project in collaboration with National Geographic and the Nobel Peace Center, is an exhibition from the four National Geographic Photo Camps held in Norway and Greece last year at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo.
What was the idea behind this the National Geographic Photo Camps?
Having newly arrived in Norway from New York, I was finding it difficult to find my place in Norwegian society. I remember reading a book, many years ago about an Australian journalist who moved to France. One comment in the book really hit me: “when you come from one country and live in another, you never belong to either.” At the same time, an emergency refugee center opened at the end of our street to support families arriving from the migrant crisis. I kept thinking, how could I help tell this story and then I realized if I gave cameras to the families, they could document their own lives and share their own story. And that’s where the idea began.
Tell us about the Photo Camps?
In 2017 I coordinated three National Geographic Photo Camps in Norway in partnership with Norwegian Red Cross Youth, the Nobel Peace Center and Wilstar. The idea was to structure all three Photo Camps around the concept of ‘home, identity and belonging’. The NG Photo Camp combined Norwegian and Migrant youth who learnt how to use the camera as a tool to document each other’s lives and what it is like to live in Norway.
The final celebration was a National Geographic exhibition of the student’s photographs combined with their writing at the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo. Alongside National Geographic photographer’s images of displaced people, the ‘What is Home?’ exhibition is currently on display on the Peace Wall outside the Nobel Peace Center and will run through September 2018.
Who attended and how were they selected?
The 65 students were a combination of Norwegian, second-generation Norwegian and migrant youth. We found our students through our partnership with the Red Cross Youth and our relationships with teachers at local schools. The selection process was simple, whoever signed up!
The photography introduction classes began in May and the National Geographic team arrived in August to teach an intensive one-week program in Bergen, Oslo and Trondheim. The staff from Nat. Geo. were incredible; Marcus Bleasdale, Lynn Johnson, Andrea Bruce, Pete Muller, Ronan Donovan and Anand Varma with NG Photo Camp Director Kirsten Elstner and NG technicians Sara Manco, Jon Brack and Tony Ayigah. For the students to have the opportunity to work with so much talent and passion, it was an extraordinary experience that I don’t think they will ever forget.
Where to next with this project or is that the end of it?
After the success of the National Geographic Photo Camps and the relationships that were cemented between the workshop participants, there was an obvious need to continue the project into local schools. So we created The Silvereye Project. (Instagram: @thesilvereyeproject). The photography workshop combines first-year Norwegian students with first-year migrant students from the migrant introduction class.
Teachers have told me they find it really difficult to find successful projects that allow the migrant youth to work as equals with their Norwegian peers. Photography is the great equalizer – it doesn’t matter what language you speak, what culture you come from… everybody can take photographs, everybody can learn the language of visual story telling and everybody can communicate with the rest of the world through their photographs.
After the final workshop in Oslo, I was approached by Rothaugen Skole in Bergen to produce a workshop for their first year students. In October 2017, the very first Silvereye Project was produced with 73 twelve-year old students; 58 students from the general school and 15 students from their migrant introductory class. It was the first time many of the immigrant youth had socialized with the Norwegian students. Now we’re developing the program, building a website and talking with schools about how we can meet their needs. We’ve also been asked to work with the migrant adult community through local NGO’s.
Living in a cold climate possibly has changed your style of shooting? Or not? Are you inspired by the wintry landscapes?
Since arriving in Norway, I’ve really been struck by the similarities to the New Zealand landscape. So in that way I feel closer to home. The only time I’ve been photographing the Norwegian landscape is through documenting my family, our two little boys and their experiences of living in Norway – and most of my images I’ve been taking has been on an iphone. When I’m chasing two small boys, the iphone seems to be the most practical option. All of our spare time is exploring this country with the boys, so in that way, being a mother vs the cold climate has changed my way of taking photographs.
Or are you still predominantly a documentary /people photographer?
I will always be a documentary photographer at heart. I love people and to me, the camera is just an excuse to spend time with incredible people. I’ve been working more and more in the film industry. I recently traveled to Myanmar and Cambodia to film and edit films for Ripple Effect Images who cover under-reported issues that impact women and children.
Is the prime Collective still active and how does that operate?
Prime Collective began seven years ago. We operate by being a support structure for story telling and marketing. And family! Being part of a team helps me be a better story teller as I know these guys all have my back.
When we began, we had one member in Spain and the rest in America. Now we have six photographers based in Nairobi, Ukraine, Mexico, Norway, New York and California. We share information about grants, stories, editors and publications. We have a newsletter that we send out to editors every month sharing our news and published work. We’re all incredibly busy, but we communicate almost daily through WhatsApp to see how we’re all doing. You can sign up for our newsletter at https//www.primecollective.com/about/
You can contact Melanie or follow her on Instagram. Instagram account: @melburford or https://www.instagram.com/melburford/
Years ago I recall sitting talking with you in Oamaru and you explained that you often spent a considerable amount of time talking to someone and getting to know about them before you even took your camera out of the bag. I think that was one of the best pieces of advice I ever received and now days with cell phones it probably is more important than ever.
Is the passion as strong as ever?
Of course. Now my photography celebrates my children so my two greatest passions are together, which I love.
What is your advice to an aspiring young photographer embarking on a career?
To learn as many visual storytelling skills as you can, it means that you have a larger toolbox to tell stories depending on the story and the people standing in front of you. Sometimes because of access the camera is the best option. Adding audio creates another dimension in your story telling. Moving to film adds another.
Being able to step from one genre to another also gives my clients more options with what I can deliver. Online film and video is become increasingly more powerful as a tool to share stories with a worldwide audience so I’m trying to step into that market.
At the same time, never forget the camera is a tool. Just that. Learn what you can, but when you’re in front of someone, they are what is important. Trust, empathy and relationship. Once you have that, then your stories can become that much richer.
Finally where do you see yourself in 10 years from now photographically speaking?
I’ll still be taking photographs! And producing film. And teaching.
Being a mother, I’m constantly thinking about my children and adjusting myself and the way I tell stories to be more available. I’ve started to travel a little more, but I don’t like being away for too long. That is why I love being an educator, it allows me to still share my love of photography but also allows me to be at home.
So in ten years, I’d love to travel more with the boys and explore this incredible world of ours and introduce them to more cultures and landscapes. And maybe share my love of photography with them both.
Melanie has shared some poignant and moving images with us – take time to really look at the stories they tell. Please click on all blue links to read the full stories, and remember feedback is most welcome. Again my sincere thanks to Me Burford.