Photography’s a lens for how one sees the world, but its meaning is metaphorical too. For Melissa, photography frames everything.
Jono: What’s your current camera setup?
Melissa: I use a Canon 5D Mark IV and the DJI Mavic Pro 2 for aerial photography.
Lenswise I have a 50mm f/1.2, 24-70mm f/2.8, 16-35mm f/4 and a 70-200mm f/2.8. I travel with so many lenses because I enjoy shooting both portraits and landscapes – this means I’ve got to carry around a few bricks in my bag! I’m always hoping that when I check into flights that no one notices that my camera bag is heavier than my actual suitcase!
What’s your favourite lens?
If I could marry a lens I’d definitely tie the knot with my 50mm f/1.2. When I upgraded from the Canon 5D Mark II to the Mark IV, I decided to do the same with the 50mm f/1.8 pancake lens that I owned at the time.
The lens is a solid piece of glass but it’s so sharp, fast, and dreamy. The small depth of field also opens up so many opportunities when shooting everything from portraits to astrophotography. It’s my go-to lens for most things.
How did your passion for photography start?
I was about 13 when my godmother first put her camera in my hands and that’s the first roll of film I shot. I ended up taking that roll to the darkroom in my high school where I learned how to develop it. Being able to watch the photo come to life in front of me was what started my obsession with photography, it was so tangible.
I continued to play around with photography throughout high school and I was obsessed with the cameras I owned; my polaroid, 35mm and a little waterproof point and shoot camera. I’d take them with me to document all of the adventures I was on, be it catching a train to the city or going out to the waterfalls in my area.
What’s really funny is that it took me until I was 24 to actually start doing something with my photography, and what I do now is everything that I’ve ever done. I didn’t think it was a career for me until this point in my life either.
At the time, I was working for the government in Victoria, so although I had some projects on the side, I always had my serious job to go back to. The government ended up cutting funding across the state and since I was a temporary contractor, I lost my job. Though I loved that job, it was that point in my life where I had to decide if I was going to take photography seriously and give it a real go. It was scary, but it was the push that I needed to finally take a hobby of mine and build it into a career.
I remember calling my mom and my godmother and telling them I was going to give this photography thing a go and both of them just said: ‘Yeah, about time’. I’m lucky enough to have something I love doing as my career, it’s all anyone can ever wish for.
Being a self-taught photographer, how did you find the process of learning when you first began and how do you continue to educate yourself in the photography game?
Every time I pick up the camera I’m learning. Although we’re living in the age of social media and consuming so much content, when I’m out in a natural environment, I try to think of ways to shoot things differently. Whether it’s putting my own spin on composition or technique, I’m trying to create something that is unique.
With the dynamic nature of being in the outdoors and having so many things completely out of your control, thinking of all the different ways I can tell the story with my camera allows me to learn every time I’m shooting. Sometimes it fails and you wish you hadn’t tried something different, but that’s the learning process. I’m constantly learning, I’m constantly evolving and constantly finding my style within all of that.
Photography in itself is a learning process. It provides a medium in which you can interact with people, nature, and cultures. It’s a beautiful thing.
Definitely. You explained it far more succinctly than my brain without a coffee.
So over the years, your work has allowed you to travel to various parts of the world. What have you learnt from being able to experience all of these other cultures?
I think I learnt these lessons far before working in the tourism industry. When I was younger, I got to travel with my mom and she really opened my eyes to the world of travelling and showed me the world in a different way.
Working in the travel industry is absolutely amazing, but my passion outside of that as a photographer lies in experiencing and immersing into a culture. I want to authentically document the places that I visit and be able to help and give back wherever I can. So I think for me, although they’re intertwined, they’re actually two separate parts of what I do as a photographer.
Typically, working in the tourism industry means you have strict itineraries and shot lists that have to be filled within a small period of time. This doesn’t always lend itself to really being able to immerse yourself where you are.
So for me as a photographer, there’s a separation in work and my passion projects. It’s on these projects where I’m able to be a bystander and document different cultures around the world.
I did a deep dive into your Instagram feed and I came across something you wrote that struck me. You said,
‘My intention has always been to use my work to create good, using my camera as a tool to provoke conversation.’
I know you’ve done a lot of charity work, why is it so important to you that you do that?
It comes back to something that my mother taught me at a young age. She instilled in me the idea that you should always be doing what you can to give back and to help others.
I’ve been on Instagram for what must be like 10 years now, and I think somewhere along the line I realised that having a platform like that was really an opportunity to start conversations around important issues such as animal welfare in the tourism industry.
For example, I realised by posting a photograph of an elephant I could start a conversation in a non-confrontational way which could help people learn about these issues and allows me to go somewhere without just taking photos and making it all about me.
By using my photography and social media I’ve been able to do things like creating a Nepal zine and donating all the proceeds to the Intrepid Foundation – Namaste Nepal Appeal after the earthquake in 2015. Although I was going to make the zine anyway, it felt wrong to make money from it so I was glad to be able to give back to somewhere that gave me so much to me.
If I can make a difference, be it one less person riding an elephant, or one more person donating money at a time when people need it to rebuild, that’s the most important thing that I can do.
It’s clear that your mother means the world to you and both her memory and words live on in you. How did losing her affect your life and your career?
Everything changed. I was living in Melbourne and I had a business with my ex, I was doing photography and things were amazing but I got lost in this cycle where I always felt the need to work, to produce and run the business. I lost sight of what was really important to me and then it all hit me like a tonne of bricks. Was I happy in doing what I was doing?
I think society tells you that if you’re not busy, then you’re not doing something, and I’d fallen into that trap. When Mum was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer I stopped working, moved on from Melbourne and went back to live at Mum’s place to look after her through chemotherapy and radiation.
My mum was actually sick for my whole life. She had a kidney transplant when I was ten years old and it changed her life, she got an extra sixteen years of not being as sick as she was pre-transplant. I think all of my travels and trying to give back stemmed from this gratitude of having an able body and the opportunity to do things that weren’t tied to a hospital.
A few weeks prior to moving home I was in Hawaii working for The Greatest Generations Foundation, which was bringing the Pearl Harbour survivors back to Pearl Harbour for the first time in 72 years. While I was there documenting their return, I had a deep and meaningful chat with an older gentleman who was a Pearl Harbour survivor himself.
We talked about not hanging on to hate after the war, what love means and what the meaning of life is. During the conversation, he said to me ‘If you’re not happy, what are you doing?’. At that moment I had clarity and I realised that I didn’t want to be in Melbourne, I needed to go home. That’s where I needed to be at that time, and so that’s what I did. I moved home, took care of my mum until she passed and then I moved to the Gold Coast. It was such a pivotal moment for me, everything was going to be different from here.
I was on my own, in a new city and just starting to think about my photography as a career because I told my mum that I wouldn’t give up on my passion just because I was in pain. I was going to keep going because my photography was an extension of everything that we’d shared together.
She’d always say to me ‘I’ll find you in every sunset and at every sunrise, so make sure you get out there with your camera.’
The entire process led me to realise that if I’d have stayed in Melbourne, I would’ve burnt out. I would’ve not been living the life that I wanted to live and mightn’t be capturing things in an authentic way. So the slowing down, the time apart and the roller coaster of grief really taught me a lot. I think that those experiences help me create more emotion in my photographs and help me connect with whatever I’m doing, because it has new meaning now. Flipping my life upside down really helped my photography. The pain shaped it and made it different.
I totally understand that. I’d liken that to certain musical artists that, when they sing, you can hear the pain in their voice. You know that they’ve experienced some hardship and you’re drawn to their story.
That’s such a good analogy too because music is one of those indescribable but almost tangible feelings. When you hear someone singing you feel it, it’s like you can touch it. If I could have anyone think that about something that I do in my career, that’s the goal. To be able to impact someone to the point where they feel, that’s absolutely the goal.
What is it about nature that inspires you in your art?
It’s the place where I really feel alive. When I was younger, I went through a period of depression and I found that being out in nature was the place where all of the worries that were in my mind were soothed – whether by the running of water or the rustling of the trees.
I’m drawn to the outdoors because it’s ever-changing and sometimes turbulent, but the turbulence is beautiful. I think that as a photographer I’m attracted to capturing all waves of nature in all elements.
I could relate what I was seeing to what I was experiencing, turbulence coupled with the calm. I realised that they’re both needed and they’re both beautiful.
I’m drawn to shooting wide open spaces and different landscapes because it’ll never be like that single moment you’re experiencing again, and that’s an absolute privilege. It’s like a painting that might take my lifetime to finish, and if it does, that’s awesome too.
What’s the most picturesque place that you’ve ever visited?
Patagonia. I’ve always wanted to go there so I bought myself a gift for my 30th birthday a few years ago. Lucky for me, while I was there, the weather was the worst weather they’d seen in seven years. There was flash flooding and you couldn’t see any of the mountains! I had packed all of my camping gear and meals but only got to camp for one night. I didn’t even get to do any of the hikes that I’d planned to do.
However, there was this window of three days, in Torres Del Paine, where the weather was magic. When the rain had stopped and I could finally see the mountains, it absolutely blew me away. The potential to create amazing imagery down there is endless. It’s so inspiring. So even though I got the smallest window of opportunity and only got to do one hike and camp for one night, it was literally one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Now that I’m talking about it I have to go back, why have I not been back?!
Take us behind the scenes of this stunning underwater image from Lord Howe Island in New South Wales.
Ever since I saw David Attenborough there, I knew I had to go. Having seen iPhone photos from friends that had gone there, the sheer nature and beauty of the place overwhelmed me. When I finally got a job to go there, I was beside myself. I would’ve done anything to go there.
Funny story, when I arrived, we had really bad weather and everything I had on my itinerary was cancelled. I had this year where I was challenged by the weather I swear! I couldn’t go diving, head to Balls Pyramid, hike Mt Gower. Nothing. So I was stuck in this situation where I couldn’t deliver anything that my client had asked for due to the weather. So I said to them, if you can just change my flight, you won’t have to pay me extra and I promise to wait it out and create some beautiful imagery. They agreed.
The leader of the Mount Gower trip was a guy named Jack Schick who was really into photography, so when he heard I was staying, he offered me a room in his family’s home. The bad weather continued but I would go out for bike rides in the rain where the wind was moving me more sideways than forward, but I was committed to enjoying it and waiting for the good weather.
Finally, some good weather rolled through and I headed out to the Admiralty islands with Pro Dive, who were super amazing and set me up with a freediver from the island to help me create the image. They took me out to this spot called the Eye of Horus, which was this stunning cave and had amazing diving conditions. We jumped in the water and had some fun. The woman that came out to model was an amazing freediver and basically a mermaid. I was in awe of her and we created this image.
Again, it was just one of those moments that kind of worked out even though the days prior were interesting, to say the least. I think that’s also why it’s such a special thing for me, instead of being in and out for the shoot, I got caught in a storm, ended up breaking bread in a locals house and eventually going out and shooting the island. That’s why this image is so special, because it’s not like you can just always roll into a place and create something like that, you know, it’s nature. It does what it wants to do.
What’s next for you and are there any projects we can look out for in the future?
I have some teaching things in the works. I’ve taught for Canon in the past, but as an introvert, I thought that I would hate it. What I realised is the moment where you can help facilitate someone else to create an image that they’re proud of is an amazing feeling. If I can impart anything that can help someone, that might help someone achieve, that’s the drawcard for me. It’s very interesting because I never thought that this would be something I’d be into.
The pandemic has also brought a chance for me to explore meaningful photography inside the travel space a little more. In the past, I’ve organised an 18-day hike in Nepal mixed with photography, which wasn’t necessarily a workshop because I wanted to steer away from it being solely about that, and focus more on the experience. If I could do more group travel like I’d love to do that – more teaching and travelling with a purpose.
Check out more of Melissa Findley’s work on her website.