ARTIST IN THE SPOTLIGHT | Melissa Alcena
Welcome back to Cacique’s Artist In The Spotlight series - a journey into a thriving Bahamian art scene and a look at some of our most celebrated artists, as well as the movers and shakers garnering a name for themselves on island and around the world. For this episode, I had the distinct pleasure of chatting with Bahamian photographer Melissa Alcena, whose honest, arresting documentary photography has captured the attention of the island nation, as well as a not-too-shabby publication by the name of Vogue.
Melissa’s work is currently on display at the NAGB’s National Exhibition 9 The Fruit and the Seed - “a socially-curious project that centres around how artists are working to define their space and experiences. Whether it be through the lens of race, gender, parity and class.”(NAGB)
Cacique. What drew you to photography as an art form?
Melissa. I didn’t go straight off to college after graduating high school because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I worked desk jobs instead. After settling into an I.T. company as a sales person, I still felt super unfulfilled. I wasn’t really making the difference I wanted to in other peoples lives, or tapping into my creativity either. Around that time, I had taken up photography as a hobby, photographing people I met on the street, mainly homeless people, in an attempt to showcase something positive about them and I liked it. I liked connecting with random people and having these intensely insightful moments and then seeing the final images.
After a particularly rough day at work, I went to grab a drink at a bar and started up a conversation with a stranger, venting about how I unfulfilled I felt, and how it would be amazing if I just went off to study photography instead. To my luck, he told me about a college his brother attended in Canada for photography and urged me to check it out. When I did the research it felt like the place for me ( even though I’d never been to Canada before ) and I decided I was going to attend. I eventually quit my job and moved to Cuba for a few months to work on photos for my entrance portfolio ( I’d been to Cuba before with my Dad and was super inspired by the country and it’s people ). I got accepted and I realised it was the perfect way to for me to combine my creativity and my love of connecting with people, while also being of service to others.
C. Do you have an artistic "method"?
M. I tend to go with the flow for my documentary work. For shoots I really have to plan, I just try to facilitate an environment for people to express themselves as naturally as possible. Although I can direct people, when it comes to portrait sessions I enjoy more of a documentary approach in a controlled environment. I haven’t been photographing professional models frequently, so it’s important for me to make people who aren’t feel comfortable enough so they can be themselves, so that I can capture them as authentically as possible.
C. How do you choose your models?
M. For the documentary stuff, it’s very random. I’m usually in my jeep driving around and I just see someone sitting some type of way, or doing something while highlighted in gorgeous light and I get set off and have to ask them if they’d let me take their photo. I never presume that a person is going to allow me to take their photo, so I’m always surprised when they agree and get ridiculously excited. Other times, I may see people at a function or through mutual friends and if they have a look that I feel may work for a project I’m working on, I’ll ask them if they’re interested.
C. How do you get your inspiration?
From everyday experiences. After being abroad for such a while, I came back home with fresh eyes and found that I was inspired by capturing Bahamians doing everyday things. Walking with their kids on their shoulders down the street, chopping down coconuts, cleaning fish, or just straight chillin’. I love watching people and seeing their characters come out. Sometimes I’ll see things I want to try and capture at another time. I feel like some moments shouldn’t be interrupted and should just be enjoyed. There’s that saying, that's like “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” but once in a while it feels good to just see something and be in awe of it for those few seconds and then let it go. Other times I can become inspired by other artists/photographers that I find on Instagram or through watching films.
C. Do you have a particular technique to connect with your subjects?
M. Conversations while shooting. It helps me get a better sense of what a person is like and how I’d like to portray them. It also helps to create a connection between the person and I for positive synergy. I fully believe that whatever energy you bring to a ‘set’ is going to be received by whomever your photographing, and that it will be translated in the photo. It's a collaboration between the model and I and we’re playing off of each other to get the best shots. And more often that not, conversations open up opportunities for me to capture people in fully authentic moments which can end up being pretty beautiful.
C. What makes a "good" photograph in your eyes?
M. Composition, the colour tones, the light and the way it makes me feel. I don’t feel like I’m the best person to ask sometimes because I still feel that I have a lot to learn. But a good photograph in my opinion, just feels right with all these elements combined. Usually my favourite photos are the ones that make me say ‘wow’ aloud, or make me feel like I wished I did that.
C. What’s the story behind being published in Vogue Italia?
M. For a large part of 2018, I was in a really low place emotionally and physically. I wasn’t really shooting that much so I spent a great deal of time at home, while working on getting my health in order. I didn’t want to feel like I wasn’t making the most of my time so I decided to submit my photos to Vogue Italia’s online photography platform, Photovogue. I made a profile and uploaded an image for their consideration and they accepted it, which was the coolest feeling ever. I kept doing it and some of my photos made it to the ‘Best of’ category for that day and even the ‘Pic of the Day’ which blew my mind. Eventually I was contacted by their editors and asked to submit work to be considered for an exhibition they were having in Milan, but I didn’t make the cut. I’m always stressing about progressing, so I still have that email starred as a reminder that I was doing something right, as I continue to move forward.
C. Do you attempt to tackle any social issues through your photography?
M. Social commentary for sure. I feel like its important to re-examine how we define people. To be open to changing the narratives we hold in our minds about others. 90% of the time our perceptions of people aren't accurate, yet we’re content with treating them differently according to our opinions alone. I’ve definitely been guilty of this and it can be damaging. I’ve tried to uplift Bahamian people who I feel are marginalised through my work, in an attempt to inspire a level of openness and respect from others. I feel like one of the worst things you can do to a person is to ignore them, as it makes them obsolete. That doesn’t sit right with me, so I take their photos in order for them to be seen.
C. Where do you feel art/ photography is going particularly here in The Bahamas?
M. The art scene is BOOMING right now and I’m here for it. It’s exciting and encouraging to see more and more Bahamians taking up an appreciation for art and photography because I don’t feel people were as interested 10 years ago. I feel like we're growing…
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At Cacique, we love to showcase our colourful art scene and the characters that create its distinct flair. For more information about Melissa Alcena or any of our other fabulous Artists In The Spotlight, or to find out about curating a unique look and sound for your event, feel free to contact us.
Looking forward to the next chat! SMS ;)