When bad things happen in far away places the easiest thing to do is ignore them, but New York photographer Mike Mellia is doing all he can to make sure you don’t. Mike is famous for using his photographs to make analytical statements (remember these guys), and his collaboration with South Sudanese refugee-turned-supermodel Nykhor Paul has made sure his latest work Our side of the story: South Sudan is no exception.
This important series captures the fascinating and heartbreaking stories of 14 South Sudanese nationals in a beautifully simple way, giving a brief but brutal insight into the people affected by this widely unpublicised crisis. South Sudan has been left in a state of disarray by their civil war, and the unimaginable impact it has had on each of these people is exposed stunningly in Mike’s photographs.
The photos come across more like painted portraits; both in their style and in the way they represent a story rather than just a moment. Mike’s work is powerful to say the least, evoking emotion as well as bringing attention to a real life problem; it’s so much more than just a pretty picture.
What was the starting point of your Our side of the story: South Sudan project? What or who was your inspiration?
I was introduced to supermodel Nykhor Paul by creative director Laura Lanteri. Nykhor is the founder of the We Are Nilotic initiative for South Sudanese women, and Laura has a background in fashion and international development. I wanted to tell the story of these 14 extraordinary people and the story behind South Sudan’s conflict.
What kind of impact do you hope or expect it will have?
I think the work has already impacted people in many ways, from raising awareness about South Sudan’s conflict, all the way to bringing up concerns that Africa might suffer another genocide, by encouraging people to unite for peace. This project has had a huge emotional impact on me personally. Having an honest conversation about South Sudan in America is already a step in the right direction.
Where did your photography career begin? How did you reach the style you have now?
I have always been interested in conceptual art in any medium, and from the beginning I was always coming from an art point of view. I think my style of portraiture is very natural but also very painterly. The light pouring through a window in an old Renaissance painting is very beautiful to me. I think I have reached the style that I have now by constantly working but also by being very critical and conscious of what I am doing. From the beginning, allegory was always very interesting too because for me great art asks more questions than it provides answers.
What would you say has most greatly impacted your career?
I grew up in the Bronx, and in 1998 when I was 18 years old I moved to Manhattan to attend Columbia University for college. My art class took me to the Whitney Museum of American Art for the first time and my mind exploded. After that everything became abstracted for me. Later I saw Richard Serra’s process art Verb List and also his large steel sculptures that interact with the viewer’s perspective as you walk through them. I knew anything was possible.