Melissa Engle speaks with The Bridge Online
Tell me about your work with Mennonite Central Committee--what kinds of places, people, events, have you photographed?
I've been able to capture and experience all sorts of places, people and events as MCC photographer, from people living with HIV/AIDS to people fighting against strip mining in the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky and West Virginia; from Amish relief sale auctions to Bill Gates and Bill Clinton at the International AIDS Conference in Toronto. I have been able to see and do a lot more than I ever expected or imagined for my first year out of college.
How did you get the job with MCC?
At the end of senior year in my graphic design class with Professor Dave Kasparek we had to do a "self-promotion" project. We created and designed a visual resume of our work. We had to choose several places where we might want to get an internship or a job, and then send our projects to them. The goal was for the piece to be something different and visually interesting that would catch their eye right away. Well, I had seen A Common Place (MCC's magazine) and thought how neat it would be to work for them as a photographer so I sent them one of my photography booklets. I didn't expect any positions to be open, but I had perfect timing and they happened to have the photographer position available! I applied, and now here I am!
Where have you traveled outside the country?
So far my international trips have been to Tanzania, Kenya, Syria, Lebanon, El Salvador, Rwanda, Burundi, Ukraine, Canada, Bolivia, and Colombia.
What has been your favorite trip?
What a difficult question! Each trip has been so unique and I have favorite parts about each one. One of the most memorable trips was when I was in Rwanda photographing for a story about peace and reconciliation among women from both sides of the genocide (Hutu and Tutsi). I got to spend most of a day just following a woman named Seraphine as she went through her daily routine in a small village outside of Kigali. We walked a mile or so to a field where she was hoeing sweet potatoes and then back to her home where she shelled bean pods and peeled potatoes to make lunch for her children when they got home from school. One of the things I enjoy most in doing photography is having time to connect with the people and see how they live, and I will always remember that day I got to spend with Seraphine.
Which image has stuck with you the most?
This is another hard question; one of my favorite photographs is from Rwanda. The photo is of a woman with her mother and two sons, standing outside of their home. They are all laughing and wearing bright colors and the wall is made of dried mud and covered with cracks. Another "image" that sticks with me was when we attended a service in a Syrian Orthodox Church. The church and altar were absolutely beautiful and the smell of the incense and the sound of the songs being chanted in Syriac are all things that I can still remember.
How did your studies at Messiah prepare you for this work?
Well, Messiah definitely helped me to prepare myself for the traveling. I studied in Ecuador for a semester, spent a semester in Philly, spent a month studying in Spain, and went to Venezuela for a spring break service trip, all during my time at Messiah. The professors in the art department were great at encouraging me to pursue my interests in photography in the ways that I wanted. While I was in Ecuador I took about 20 rolls of black and white film and did an independent study in photography with those photos. I also did a lot of theatre photography and got to borrow the digital single lens reflex camera from art professor Don Forsythe to practice with. I'm glad I had that practice because the cameras I use at MCC are all digital and it has taken a bit for me to get adjusted to how they work. Digital photography is very different than being in the darkroom!
Another way that Messiah prepared me was helping me to develop a passion for people of different cultures. One of my all time favorite classes at Messiah was TESOL with Linda Parkyn. We got to teach English to refugees and I ended up turning that into my senior art show where I photographed a refugee family from Cuba.
How do your work and your faith interact?
I hope that my images can move people to action, whether they decide they want to give financially, or serve, or pray. I am blessed by the opportunities that God has given me to travel and I hope that he can use my eyes and my photography to help and support those who are in need. I hope to portray people with dignity and respect and tell their stories visually so that when people read the magazine they are able to connect with the lives of others and hopefully understand more about the places these people live. Traveling and meeting so many incredible people has given me the chance to see and understand more of who God is and how he is working and moving all over the world. For me it's also interesting to see how people live out their faith in different ways, in how they choose to serve, worship, live, and love.
What has been the most exciting part of being staff photographer for MCC?
The most exciting part is being able to learn about life in a place completely different from my own. The people that I meet are what make it the most interesting and the most memorable. Whether it's a young Syrian Orthodox priest who is extremely passionate about what he does or an El Savadorian woman who is willing to speak out about living with HIV/AIDS in spite of the stigma she faces, for me it's being able to see a glimpse of peoples' lives, passions, and struggles that make each trip so exciting and inspiring. There are also many random stories I could share that have made the trips more exciting- like the time we saw our chicken alive before we ate it in Burundi, or when I watched a dentist yank out a patient's tooth with big silver tongs in Ukraine. Of course the different foods are always fun to try and being able to have some "tourist time" to see castles or watch elephants cross the road always make things more exciting.
The biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge for me is when I have to be quick and bold and be able to tell a moving story with my photographs in a short amount of time. Sometimes there isn't enough time to get to know a person/situation and I don't feel satisfied that I portrayed the story as best I could. It takes time to capture the essence of someone's personality and to get into the nitty-gritty of their story and their life. I want my photographs to be personal, intimate, and emotive and it's hard to do that when you are only with the person for a few hours and one of those hours is spent doing an interview.
The most challenging assignments for me have been photographing people living with HIV/AIDS. My first overseas trip with MCC was to Tanzania, traveling to different AIDS projects. It was very hard for me, at first, to feel comfortable photographing people who were dying of this disease. It made me think, "would I want some stranger photographing me when I was dying?" In realizing the importance of images, the impact they have on people, and the messages they send, I am now more comfortable photographing people living with HIV/AIDS. I think it's important to make sure that the photos aren't one-sided in their message. In other words, not only showing photographs of those dying of the disease, but those it affects (children/ orphans/ mothers) and those who are living healthy lives despite being infected with HIV/AIDS, due to drugs (ARVs) that have made them a lot stronger.