Primarily a portrait photographer, Melissa Alcena is experienced enough to know that “we all wear different faces, and only choose to show others the ones we’re most comfortable with”. In turn, no matter the final outcome or who her subject may be, “the best part about taking someone’s portrait is getting to know them”.
A Bahamian photographer, Melissa now lives in Nassau following a short stint in Oakville, Ontario to attend the applied photography course at Sheridan College. Following high school she felt a little lost about what to do next, working desk jobs while thinking about a possible creative outlet. Wanting to not only express herself but also “connect with others and be of service somehow”, she picked up an old Canon Rebel camera and began to take it everywhere.
One day during a trip to the post office, Melissa walked past a homeless man “who didn’t speak but who lingered outside and never seemed to bother anyone”. Back in her car, when she turned down her window he popped his head inside. “For some reason I didn’t feel threatened, but there was this moment where I remember looking into his eyes and I thought they were beautiful and I wanted to know his story”, the photographer says. “I grabbed my camera quickly and took his photo. I showed it to him and he smiled and left. It was an odd moment,” she says on reflection, “but when I saw the photo after I knew photography was what I wanted to do.”
Ever since, Melissa’s approach to photography has facilitated a particular and personal environment. In order to achieve her final goal of being “introduced to one of the realest parts of them to capture”, she begins with having a chat. A fan of a conversational shoot, Melissa is relaxed in front of the subject, often casually asking questions while figuring out her exposure and taking some test shots. It sometimes goes without recognition that – unless you’re a professional model – being faced with a camera is quite the intimidating experience, and “it can make people feel pretty vulnerable as well”.
As a result, Melissa’s approach towards a subject may seem casual, but behind the scenes, it’s one taken very seriously. Taking into account the psychology of the subject at hand she ensures “I’m always coming across as open, honest and respectful to whatever vibe they’re bringing to the session.” Sometimes it will result in a shoot “where we just laugh the whole time”, but others can be “deeply transformative conversations about relationships, politics and death. Sometimes I’ll end up leaving a shoot with an entirely new perspective on life.”
Melissa’s photographs, just like her own experiences, are eye-opening. Through this specific approach, she’s managed to strike a unique medium, one that truthfully portrays a subject but equally allows the viewer to consider their own interpretation. “I feel like it’s important for us to rethink how we define people”, the photographer adds, referring to what she hopes viewers take away from her images, “as our perceptions of others are rarely accurate.”
And, although we believe Melissa has already established an astute and personal way of working, for her: “Taking portraits of people has given me an insight into myself and others and in a way, it’s an ongoing education.”
About the Author
Lucy joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In October 2016 she became a staff writer on the editorial team and in January 2019 was made It’s Nice That’s deputy editor. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about new and upcoming creative projects or editorial ideas for the site.