Melissa Golden recently sat down with Barbara Griffin to discuss moving back to the South, her role as President of the Women Photojournalists of Washington, hard-earned advice for aspiring photojournalists, and her current and upcoming projects.
Melissa’s photography has been recognized by American Photography, the White House News Photographer’s Association, the World Photography Organization and the Eddie Adams Workshop, and has been shown at exhibitions in DC, LA, Stockholm and Cape Town. She is a contributing photographer with Redux Pictures and her clients include Fast Company, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, ESPN Magazine, CNN, Variety, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and PepsiCo among others.
Barbara Griffin: Welcome to Atlanta! We’re thrilled that you’ve joined the Atlanta photo community! What brought you back?
Melissa Golden: Atlanta is having a moment. It’s a different place than I remember when I went to high school and college in Georgia. The city has transformed over the years and it’s become the kind of place that you’d be silly not to consider living in if you are creative, especially in the visual arts. The cost of living keeps going up but it’s still quite reasonable compared to the other arts anchor cities. It has a world-class airport and world-class resources for creatives.
Also, I needed a change of pace, a change of scenery, and Atlanta offered both. At the same time it also offered me something very familiar. I’ve been coming to Georgia since I was a small child because my grandmother has lived here my whole life. It really felt like coming home when I moved back. A lot of my friends from high school and college are still in the area and before I realized it I had this whole big network I hadn’t even considered. So it’s been wonderful.
BG: Are you actually from the South?
MG: I’m a military brat. I lived in the South for about ten years before I moved to D.C.
BG: How has the South influenced you in your work or shaped you as a photographer?
MG: This is where I learned how to shoot. There’s no denying that it had a lot to do with how I see and how I shoot and how I interact with people. Specifically, learning how to shoot at small town newspapers, like the smallest bureau of a small town newspaper. My first internship was The Houston County Bureau of the Macon Telegraph in central Georgia; that coverage area encompasses where Honey Boo Boo’s family lives if that tells you anything. It taught me how to see and how to interact with people in a way that has served me very well throughout my career. I’ve always felt like being in the South is really like being a character or a witness in a Southern Gothic novel.
BG: That’s part of that deep tradition of storytelling that is so inherent in the South.
MG: I’ve always been a very big fan of magical realism, which is a literary movement generally more ascribed to Latin America, but I feel in many ways it’s very much alive in the South. The weirdness of the Southern Gothic and the magical nature of the light, the things that happen here, it appealed to all my instincts and absolutely shaped the way that I see. It’s hard to be bored here; it’s a very, very stimulating place. It’s good to be back.
BG: I agree and we’re glad you’re here! Are there strategic opportunities afforded to you as a photojournalist by being based in Atlanta as opposed to DC, New York or LA?
MG: Absolutely. When I picked Atlanta I absolutely wanted to position myself as a regional photographer. There are so many newsworthy and relevant places within a quick drive of Atlanta and, sure enough, since I’ve been down here my assignments have taken me all over. I’ve had a lot of work in South Carolina and Alabama, as well as Georgia. And that was to be expected so, strategically, this is a great place if you’re a news photographer; there’s always something happening in the South.
It’s also a great place to be if you’re a feature photographer; it’s a feature rich environment. Additionally, a lot of other photographers live in New York and LA and not here. So the market isn’t as over-saturated. And I probably shouldn’t be saying this out loud, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Atlanta became a magnet for more photographers like me in the next couple of years. Probably because I keep telling everyone how wonderful I think it is and they’re all getting curious.
BG: I think that everyone who is in this industry does it because they really, really love it. What made you fall in love with photography?
MG: From a technical standpoint, I was entranced, like all artists, by the idea of being able to take something from my imagination of the way I want it to look and make that happen with the camera, recording my crazy visions for posterity. And from a purely selfish standpoint, it’s absolutely my passport to adventure; it’s helped me travel the world and meet people. I’m kind of a recluse by nature and introverted. I would not leave my house if I weren’t a photographer. It gets me out of the house and into…I’m like a hobbit really – I keep getting brought on board on these grand adventures thanks to the camera. So it’s really enriched my life and I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.
BG: If you’re home for a while do you start to get that itch? Like “I’ve got to go”?
MG: I get stir crazy after a while but I think it takes me longer than most people. What I do love is last minute travel. For example, one night a few years ago I decided I needed to go to South Africa. So I booked a ticket that night to leave two days later for two weeks.
BG: And that’s not a small undertaking.
MG: Yes and no. It turns out one of my best skills is logistics. I’m unusually good at making travel arrangements happen, quickly. I once woke up to a phone call from an editor at 10:30 in the morning asking if I could be in Orlando by 6 pm. I was in DC at the time and in Orlando by 6 pm.
BG: South Africa though, that’s a 17-hour flight.
MG: Yes, it was long, with a layover in Amsterdam.
BG: You once tweeted… your tweets are going to come back to haunt you…
MG: Uh oh!
BG: … that your career began with the Eddie Adams workshop. What inspired you there?
MG: Oh, Wow. There are a series of events that I can work back from that lead to that. The workshop was pivotal. I attended in 2008 and while I was there I received an award, as many of the students do, and my award was an assignment with Parade Magazine. A year goes by and no assignment. Finally they called me and asked if I wanted to shoot a day in the life of Hillary Clinton at the State Department. My portfolio had a lot of campaign coverage from the 2008 election and they saw that I could do politics, based in DC…OK, let’s give her the award. I talked to a friend who got the same award in a different year and he said his assignment was to go photograph a stop sign.
BG: You clearly won the draw on that one!
MG: I lucked out tremendously. That assignment went well. While I didn’t get the cover – the Secretary did not have time to sit for a portrait that day – one of my favorite photographers took her portrait later, so that made it OK. It was an honor to even be sharing a story with him.
BG: Who was that?
MG: Nigel Parry – fantastic portrait photographer. After that story ran, I was looking for an agency where I could syndicate the work. I was just starting to become business savvy about these things and that led to my relationship with Redux Pictures and Marcel Saba, who I’ve been with now since 2009. I thought it was just going to be a syndication agreement, but he asked “Do you want to be on the website?” (reduxpictures.com). So, it worked out and I’ve been a contributor with them this whole time. They’ve been fabulous to work with. Being with Redux has opened up a lot of doors for me, meetings that I couldn’t get on my own and a lot of assignments that led to more assignments. I’m able to trace that back to winning the award at the workshop. I also made incredible friends and connections. I actually went back last year and volunteered for 9 days. It was an honor to be asked to help and I felt like I needed to give back. I was working as a digital tech with one of the teams so I got to work more hands-on with the students. It was exciting to see them at the point where I was years before.
BG: I just taught 3 semesters at Gwinnett Tech and it’s amazing to see students get excited, grow and, as you said, accomplish their vision.
Our mutual friend, photographer David Holloway, says that you are a “photographer’s photographer,” that you know your stuff and are a real pro: someone who has the ability to walk into a situation where multiple photographers are shooting and still make your own picture. How do you do that?
MG: First of all, I had no idea David felt that way. That is the sweetest thing anyone has ever said about me behind my back (laughs).
BG: He said that in Washington you can have a situation where there might be ten other photographers shooting in the same space, but that you have the ability to still make your own picture.
MG: I had a pretty strong revelation early on that I had to do that or I would never distinguish myself in any way. From the very beginning, I attempted to get something completely different from a situation, especially if there were other photographers there. A lot of the work I do now, I’m the only photographer. But when there are other photographers, the competitive side comes out and I’ve got to do better, I have to win.
BG: Shooting political coverage in Washington has to be tough to break into and establish yourself. How did you navigate through that world and learn the spoken and unspoken rules of engagement?
MG: Very good question. When I went freelance and moved to DC, I slowly started making connections, first with newspapers around the country that might need something from Washington, and then with the wire services. I shot for AP, for EPA, and for Getty. The photo community in DC is incredibly tight-knit and familial; they took me in, gave me assignments, recommended me for things. They let me into the pack and taught me protocol. You can only be so much of a lone wolf, in DC especially, because everyone has to work elbow-to-elbow most of the time. The wire photographers in DC are some of the best in the country, the world. They are phenomenal; they have some of the driest material to work with but have to make interesting images every day.
BG: Everyday consistency is key.
MG: They’re in gilded cages in the White House and Capitol Hill. It’s tough to get something different, but they manage. There is a lot of inspiration there. I certainly wasn’t the only one trying to get something different. A lot of the photographers in DC are not content to just take the podium picture and be done with it. I also think it’s because I showed that I wasn’t a dilettante – this was going to be my life. Any established photographer – if they’re going to help an up-and-coming photographer – doesn’t want to waste their time on somebody who isn’t going to respect their craft.
BG: Or who doesn’t bother to learn the rules.
MG: Yes. It’s close quarters so, over the years, you maybe bump someone, maybe a camera gets knocked off your shoulder — things like that will happen — but you always hug it out and it’s fine. Buy the person a beer later and all is forgotten. It really is family.
BG: As a photojournalist, you’re often called upon to shoot dramatic or serious situations such as forest fires, politics, or deeply moving human stories. I’ve noticed though that there is also a lot of humor in your work. Is that a conscious effort on your part, to strike an emotional balance?
MG: It’s hard to say if it’s conscious but I think there are two components to it. First, this world and the people in it are often confusing and scary to me, so I suppose my brain does its best to transform threats into comedy as a coping and survival mechanism. I’ve always been a huge fan of the adage “we laugh, that we may not cry.”
That being said, I have a fairly off-kilter way of looking at the world which comes from my father. This is a man who told 3-year-old me that he went to the zoo and saw the last unicorn on its last day in town and it was never coming back. His twisted idea of funny became my own in time. I like the idea of celebrating the absurd and the strange with my camera. I absolutely take delight in any ridiculousness I encounter. I never shoot it with a sneer.
BG: You’ve shot much more than traditional reportage. How did you evolve into portraiture? Or was that simultaneous?
MG: I came from newspapers and, very strongly, the newspaper tradition. The way I was brought up from these old-school photographers is if you’re shooting a portrait that means you missed the action. Portraits were not appreciated in the newspapers and they were not an art form to aspire to be good at. They were the afterthought.
BG: That is fascinating, I had no idea.
MG: I didn’t know any better, that was my attitude – oh no, I have to shoot a portrait. It was not something to be excited about or proud of in the newspaper world. Obviously, there have been some newspaper photographers who have elevated portraits; Damon Winter comes to mind, and Jay Clendenin out in LA does phenomenal work. The smaller town papers and the older school mentality though, it’s no good. So working for the wires, there’s not a lot of portraiture in wirework inherently so there’s not a lot of opportunity for that. So as a poor, newly minted freelancer I started shooting weddings.
BG: Good for you.
MG: Like many of my colleagues, you do what you can to make ends meet as a photographer as long as you’re taking pictures. I know a lot of musicians who will not take a 9 to 5 job but they will take any gig they can get where they can make music. I think of lot of artists feel that way. So weddings were money and I didn’t realize it at the time, but weddings were where I learned how to light and how to direct a portrait. Over a span of 5 years I shot maybe 40 weddings and I learned a lot of what I needed to know about directing and lighting.
During that time I had an agency rep tell me that if I ever wanted to make any money in this business I needed to get good at portraits, and she was absolutely right. I look at some of my colleagues who are strictly reportage and they are incredible photographers, better photographers than I’ll ever be, but they struggle to make ends meet. They try to win grants, and they’re lucky to get actual paid assignment work out of their projects and what they shoot. I actually think it’s a shame that I’m more stable than they are because the work that they do is often more important. I got over my disdain for having to shoot portraits; I learned that they’re fun and creative. It opened up a whole new slew of opportunities for me and I embraced it. Unfortunately, I kind of lost my street cred.
BG: Really? Because you shot portraits?
MG: I became known, and I didn’t realize this until I heard other people describe me as such, but I became known, among my old colleagues I used to shoot alongside in the political scrums, as a portrait photographer. I don’t think they meant it in a negative way, but I realized that with the hybrid photographer – which is becoming increasingly common – you picked one or two things but you don’t pick photojournalism and something else. Maybe you secretly shoot weddings on the side but you don’t tell anyone about it. So now everybody’s following this model, all the photojournalists have discovered the hybrid model, and it’s serving us quite well.
BG: Your portraiture and editorial work is nuanced, graphic and compelling. It’s clear that you have a rapport with your subjects. And that’s one thing I always look for: does the photographer have rapport with whom they’re shooting? I think that’s essential. And you can see in your images that people are reacting to you favorably.
From the powerful politico to the business tycoon to the emerging rock star, how do you approach a portrait shoot or an assignment?
MG: It’s funny. When I said earlier that I was a bit of a recluse and an introvert, I am. So when I have to make somebody’s portrait I have to put on my alter ego costume. I have to be the most powerful person in the room no matter who I’m shooting. That can be the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but I have to be the most powerful person in the room when I’m taking the picture during a portrait. I have to command and, at the same time, make them comfortable.
I photograph a lot of everyday people who are not used to having their picture taken, and they are far more challenging than any celebrity or politician who is photographed all the time – they’re used to it. There’s a different set of challenges in the celebrity or politician. Getting them to break character is key.
I force myself to have my portrait made once a year. I hate having my picture taken so it forces me to re-empathize with my subjects. It’s like a root canal for some of them, and I can tell when I walk in the room and meet a subject if they are uncomfortable with the whole premise. I start off by acknowledging that, this isn’t fun, nobody likes this but it’s going to be fun, you’re going to love it, I’m going to make it fun or at least comfortable, it will be over soon, it’s like tearing off a Band-Aid. I try to bring a lot of levity to the shoot. You can’t always do that; sometimes the subject matter is very serious. Really, I have so many different strategies, it’s very much like improv jazz – you’re just playing it by ear. Sometimes complete silence makes people — especially people who are celebrities and powerful people and anyone who is not used to silence – start fidgeting and then they’ll break character.
BG: And that’s what you’re waiting for?
MG: I’m always looking for the moment within the set-up.
BG: How do you know when you’ve found that?
MG: It’s kind of an intangible thing. You just feel it. I have to turn my emotional radar up to eleven during these shoots, which is kind of exhausting. You have to read the subject so carefully.
BG: I’ve always had a rule: you’re there as a peer and not as a fan. How you show up has a lot to do with how the shoot happens. Ideally, portrait photography is collaborative, not something that is inflicted on someone, not something that you’re doing to them.
MG: Richard Branson is so used to it, he actually — during a shoot — snatched the camera out of my hands and started taking pictures of me. That’s how comfortable he is during a photo shoot.
BG: And what did you do? Were you just un-done?
MG: I’m just standing there; I don’t know how much more time I have with him. He almost dropped it too, but I figured if anyone were good for it, it would be him. I kind of gave him a “Mom look.” I think he’s used to people laughing along and going “Oh, Richard, you’re so…” and I was like “We don’t have time for this.”
BG: Not if you want to get out of here! I once had an executive walk in and tell me, “I have ten minutes, let’s get this done.” As slowly and deliberately as I possibly could I said, “Well, we can do it in ten, but you’ll like your pictures a lot more if you give us 15.” He stayed for 30.
MG: I use that line a lot. They always say, “How long is this going to be?” That is always the question when they don’t want to be there. For a lot of them time is money. And I say, “Depends on how good you want to look.”
BG: You studied international affairs and journalism. Was there a moment when you knew you wanted to focus on photojournalism?
MG: When I was still in school I applied for an internship with a certain agency in the government. I had taken notes during an orientation before my big interview and I lost the notes in a public bathroom. And I realized that’s the kind of thing that gets people killed in that line of work and maybe I wasn’t cut out for it and maybe I should do something that would benefit humanity instead of just America. So that was the turning point, when I decided on photojournalism and photography. The interview went so poorly. I was rattled, and I was like, “I can’t do this. I have to sink myself and never even allow myself to consider this line of work ever again.” And I had also said a bunch of ridiculous things that probably put me on some lists, too.
BG: That is hilarious. Did you realize shortly after that you’d made the right choice?
MG: Oh yeah. In studying international relations I’d initially wanted to be a diplomat. And a kind of incredible thing happened when I did the Hilary Clinton story at the State Department. I kind of got an opportunity to see what my life would have been like, not that I would have been Secretary of State, but all the people working in the State Department. I was geeking out the whole day. I was sitting in on meetings that I didn’t have security clearances for and I knew what they were talking about. And this is my background, so it was really exciting to be there for me. But I also got the chance to see what might have been and it reassured me that I had made the right decision and I have more fun than anybody in government.
BG: Historically, women have made significant contributions to photography and are continuing to do so today. In fact, more women are becoming photographers than ever before. Why do you think the field is still predominantly male skewing?
MG: I don’t think this is an overnight sea change; it takes a little while for these things to shift. I find when I talk to university classes now, which is a neat thing I get to do, that most of the students are women. There’s a token guy in the back corner, and it didn’t use to be that way. And I’m really, really hoping – and I always drive this point home when I speak to the class – that they are brushing up on their business skills. That, more than anything, is going to help even the playing field. Men are currently over-represented in most areas of the field because it’s mostly a difference of business skills. I don’t know why in the past nobody bothered to teach women about that.
BG: The recent report on news photography released by World Press Photo (http://www.worldpressphoto.org/sites/default/files/upload/The%20State%20of%20News%20Photography.pdf ) stated that 85% of news photographers are men. You were recently quoted in Time’s Lightbox in a piece on gender inequality and male dominance of the field: “It’s uncomfortable to try to ascertain the real reason for the wage gap, especially when so many more women are actually self-employed,” says Melissa Golden, an Atlanta-based photojournalist. “Is it because, on the whole, we’re not as good at aggressively marketing? Asking for what we’re worth? Determining what we’re worth?” http://time.com/4049405/gender-photojournalism-study/
MG: I don’t want to be the woman speaking for all women; I’m not representative of a lot of women in the field.
BG: Do you think it’s been a barrier to entry for women?
MG: I suspect – I have no firm knowledge or convictions about this, just based on my observations and talking to people – I suspect that the wage gap probably has a lot to do with those rhetorical questions. Are we correctly calculating what we’re worth and what our work is worth? Are we asking for it? Are we demanding it? I think the report also said that women are more likely to be freelancers, and freelancers deep down inside are afraid to say “no.” They don’t say “no” to a lot of bad deals. If the numbers are such that there are more women freelancing, I suppose logic would have it – and I don’t know if this is because they are freelance or because they are women – they are not turning down bad contracts and bad deals. So they are earning less because they are afraid to earn nothing at all.
BG: And also, it’s hard to know what the competition is being offered.
MG: I’m a big fan of transparency in the industry. This is why I think networking is so important. Not just with people who can hire you but also your fellow photographers. With collaborations and events in DC, we had a lot of opportunities for that, regular happy hours. We talk about these things, and my colleagues and I constantly email back and forth asking, “Hey, how would you price this out, this is kind of a weird situation, you did something like this right? What did you charge? What do you think about this?” We’re always bouncing pricing and estimates off of each other, which is very helpful. That’s just me and my friends, but I hope that everybody’s doing that because it helps us all be on the same page. That is the kind of thing that can help level the wage gap.
BG: You are currently the President of Women Photojournalists of Washington (http://www.womenphotojournalists.org/). Tell us about the organization and its goals.
MG: WPOW — that’s how we say it, like a comic book — is a very interesting organization. There’s nothing else quite like it out there. There are smaller women’s groups and broader women’s organizations dealing with women in journalism, but this is a fairly narrow focus, women photojournalists of Washington. Yet, on the roster we have something like 250-300 members. We’re including editors, multimedia, journalists and people who work in, or have worked in, visual journalism who want to stay connected to the community. It’s an unusual group and we provide a lot of opportunities for women in the area to get together and network, to support each other. I started some programming for us called “The Edit” where we get together and the members — we have National Geographic, The Washington Post and all the editors that come with that — have very generously volunteered to help our members with website edits, project edits, and contest edits. We have business seminars. We’re all about empowerment and creating safe places for us to talk about these thorny issues that if we bring them up in mixed company can sometimes lead to censure and uncomfortable awkward silences. We provide opportunities for empowerment, education, and support for women in photojournalism in particular, and photography in general. It can be a rough place for anyone to work and the working world is a little bit tougher for women.
BG: It’s a hard enough business anyway; it’s wonderful to have that support system.
MG: When I first moved to DC, I didn’t have any role models in the industry who were women. I’d only ever really worked with men. I attended a WPOW quarterly meeting and it was hosted at Carol Guzy’s house, a 4 time Pulitzer Prize winner. There were photographers and editors there who were legendary, who I’d really only heard about in school. And here I was drinking wine with them and they were friendly and they were helpful. It made me realize there’s a whole different world out there where women can support and inspire young women entering the field, really anyone entering the field.
BG: What advice would you give to people assigning jobs as well as to aspiring female photographers?
MG: There are increasingly more resources and databases that list women photographers by geography. There is no excuse anymore. You can’t say, “Oh, I don’t know any women photographers in the area.” It is always the assigning editor’s prerogative whom they hire but they should consider all their options. The Internet and resources like blink.la are making it easier. I don’t think that anyone should assign a woman photographer because of her gender. They should assign a woman photographer because she is going to do the best job for a given assignment. The problem in the past, as far as editors that I’ve talked to, is that it’s been difficult to come up with those alternatives. You have the “go to’s” in the industry and many of them are men. So WPOW and other organizations and individuals are working to change that and provide alternatives.
BG: And expose them to the work. It’s always been predominantly men and there are a lot of amazing male photographers out there. But I think women are really coming on strong.
MG: I wish there wasn’t a gender imbalance. I don’t think that women should be doing most of the assignments but it would be nice if it were a little closer to 50-50. Or at least reflective of the actual numbers in the industry. And it’s not right now. I was a very aggressive networker. I’ve never been into marketing as far as direct mail or anything like that, but I was always very keen on creating, building and maintaining relationships. That helped me more than anything.
BG: Showing up is part of it. I was an editor at Premiere Magazine a million years ago and one photographer brought his film and prints in after the shoot. He was so excited, like a kid, to show us the work. I was excited to see it because he was so excited. You felt the passion he put into the work and he could not wait for you to see it. It wasn’t enough for him to just messenger it. Those are the kinds of things that make impressions on editors, seeing that your commitment to the work is that evident.
MG: I had a few editors over the years who believed in me and gave me the opportunities to advance. That is key. I started off at the front of the book and eventually earned my way into the back and even some covers. It all started with a handful of editors who took a chance on me as an unknown, and I grew and developed from that. I owe them everything.
BG: The editor/photographer relationship is critical. Find a great mentor, help make them more successful and they help you develop your craft. Those relationships can be lasting; I worked with many of the same people for almost 30 years.
MG: You talked about aspiring photographers, back to that real quick, what they say about always shooting fresh work. Obviously, that is essential. Personal projects are really important; do at least one a year. That’s all you have to do. Go to every photo festival, every event, make friends, buy drinks, be there, offer rides, be the DD (designated driver). Another one of the reasons I chose this industry over anything else is that I thought the people were some of the best people I’d ever met in my life. It’s great that your colleagues, in this line of work, can also be your best friends.
BG: What projects are you currently working on?
I’d love to do more commercial work. That’s been picking up for me since before I moved but there’s even more potential now that I’m down here, where there are a lot of Fortune 500 companies. I actually really enjoy putting a crew together and directing, then shooting. I like the commercial world; it’s been fun for me so far. So I want to do more of that. I would love to direct music videos, which is kind of a leap from the world of photography. I have a life-long love affair with music videos. I want to get at least one under my belt to say that I’ve done it. I’m full of ideas; I just have to make them happen now. I’ve been writing down my music video ideas since I was a kid.
BG: That’s awesome.
MG: I think a background in photography is pretty helpful. You have the cinematography thing down, just inherently and then with commercial work you get the director thing down. Maybe I can actually pull this thing off. Time will tell.
BG: If you want to shoot a music video, you’ve put yourself in a big music town.
MG: A music town, and with the film industry being here, I have more resources than anywhere I’ve ever lived. I don’t know that’s entirely true, as I’ve lived in NY and LA. But I feel like I have more access to those resources here. Everybody seems so enthusiastic and collaborative. I have a music act on the side so I’m looking at all my other interests influencing my work in photography because I think it’s boring to just be a photographer. I talked about how I learned to shoot portraits and how to light by shooting weddings. I think interdisciplinary studies and interests are essential. To keep things fresh I’m looking to branch out and explore. Building out my new home, renovations, doing a lot of DIY stuff and design, being inspired by everything around me. That’s what I’m looking forward to right now.
BG: All that can do is strengthen you as a photographer.
MG: That’s what I’m hoping. It’s really easy to get into a visual rut and forget how to see. So one of the reasons I moved down here was to shake off the dust and to shake up my whole vision.