Melanie Cleary photographs people on the fringes of society. In her exhibition Another Day she focuses on children with special needs. She tells Naomi Meyer about this thought-provoking project.
Hi Melanie, thanks for taking the time to chat. On your website I see that you have been involved with projects around the world. In three sentences, please tell our readers about your background.
I am a self-taught photographer, and I started my career as a behind-the-scenes photographer working on film sets in 2001. I have continued doing a lot of shooting work on film sets and advertising campaigns. When I am not involved in commercial work I work on my personal projects.
Your exhibition opening at the Erdmann Contemporary in May focuses on photos of people on the fringes of society. We all pass by beggars every day, doing our best to ignore them. Why do you notice them (or am I missing the point)?
My work is based around commentary on socio-political situations. I tend to focus on the marginalised sections of society that are lesser known and are often ignored. I look for those people – the people that most find either uncomfortable to notice, or not worthwhile taking any notice of.
Children with special needs are more difficult to ignore, in a way, than beggars. They are not begging for money, but they make one feel guilty. Or do they? What kind of emotions do you want people to experience when they look at your photographs?
One of my main aims was to capture the personality of each of these children, and to reflect their youthfulness of spirit at the same time. That is what I would like the audience to experience when looking at the photographs from the Another Day series. This obviously does not exclude the scope for any other emotions and messages that each individual subjectively may experience and ascertain when looking at these photographs.
Black & white photograph
35 x 45.5cm
Sometimes it is not straightforward to notice the disability immediately when one looks at a photograph. The girl at the piano, for example - one can't help but wonder why she is looking unhappy. Or is she unhappy? Do you try to capture a certain emotion, or would you like the people attending the exhibition to figure out for themselves what the photographed people are or were experiencing?
I would like the audience to conclude for themselves the emotion or look of each photograph from their own subjective point of view.
When I look at your work, it strikes me that the people you photograph seldom pose for a photo in a formal way- even if the photo is commissioned. Is this the way you work?
Yes, I try to avoid posed photographs. I aim to take portraits, and that is why I approached the Another Day project over a period of two years. I developed unique relationships with each of the children and familiarised myself with the school environment, observing how the children interacted with one another in their daily lives. The children came to trust me, and over this period I became a regular feature of their daily lives. I decided to take my first portrait only when my presence was no longer a novelty to the children.
Black & white photograph
35 x 45.5cm
What kind of photos do you enjoy looking at (and taking)?
Black-and-white portraiture photography is what I most enjoy as a medium for my work. I similarly enjoy looking at works of this nature.
Please let our readers know some practical details of your exhibition coming up in Cape Town.
This exhibition is called Another Day. It opens on Tuesday, the 6th of May, and it is on view until the 29th of May. The opening will be held on the evening of the 6th at Erdmann Contemporary, 84 Kloof Street, Gardens, Cape Town, starting at 6 pm.