If you know Melly Lee, you may recognize her trademark “peace outs” and the beautiful back of her head. Melly is not only a photographer but also detailed storyteller and blogger. She has worked with the likes of Brian McKnight, Wong Fu Productions, and Michelle Phan.
Melly: I find it funny how Asian families always have cameras in the house. I was always surrounded by cameras. The way I actually got started with it though came really from a situation. In elementary, I was tired of being the kid without a yearbook at the end of the year. I didn’t want to be one of those kids who carried around a piece of paper anymore. One day I found out that if you were a part of the school newspaper or yearbook team and if you contributed images, layouts, and stuff, you’d get a free book at the end of the year. So I started shooting with cameras when I was in 3rd grade. I did that up until high school. It made me realize, “Yay! I’m not the loser anymore!” I grew up having to pay for mostly everything myself, so even in high school, I saw that being a part of yearbook got me into a lot of events for free. It was a hobby that helped me engage with people. That lead into college too.
After discovering that my plans for medical school weren’t going to work out as planned, I decided to drop out and leave my sophomore year. So when I left, I was like, “Well, I always did this! [photography] Might as well keep doing it!”
When I decided that I was going to take my hobby more seriously, I knew that I had to go all-in. It started with asking myself a series of questions. How do you even do photography as a job? From there, I went to taking classes at a community college for it, interning, and picking up jobs along the way. I went back to college and got my Bachelor of Arts. I think I was about 19 or 20 when I started getting paid to do work. If someone called me for an event, then I would go and shoot it. “Oh! There’s a wedding,” then I would go and shoot that. Just figuring out ways to make it work. It just started to grow from there.
Melly: Well, it all depends. When I’m working with a client, they’ll either have an art board of some kind with the direction they already wanna go. I’m just there to shoot it. If you’re working with a client and they already know what they want to do and already have a art director, creative director, or team. You’re just there to shoot it for them.
If I’m doing something with a more editorial side or my personal work, I then shoot with my own vision. So, for example, if it’s for a magazine shoot, my job is to glorify the subject and I ask myself, “Okay, how can I make this subject look good?” For my personal work, I take on a different approach. I come from a storyteller background. I write out the story first, then, I brainstorm and think about who I know that matches that storyline or that concept. It’s kind of like film in a sense. You have a story and you want to act it out. I see what works and doesn’t work and then I start fleshing out the character. I ask myself, “Who is the character? What do they do? Do they get coffee? What are they doing? Does she have friends?” In other words, you start building up the story on what kind of day it is. All the little details are born from simply just building the story.
Melly: It’s a mix of everything. No matter what, you have to be constantly putting yourself out there. If you don’t then you’re really not going to get the work that you want. This is especially true when you are doing anything entrepreneurial. Most of the time you’re really just saying, “Hey! Where are you? I’m here!” That’s why I’m very active on social media and why I’m very active on blogging. I even send out e-mail reminders to myself.
It’s really a do or die sense. I got a good taste of that when I left college because I was like, “Cool, this is not going to work out. Therefore, every decision I make from this point on has to do something for me.” When I was in high school, I graduated at the top of the class. There was the whole you’re Asian, you’re a first born, you’re going to be a doctor. So when I saw this expected path wasn’t going to work out, I knew that this had to either work out or not. As I go on there are always stages of challenges. Even now, from December to January it’s my dry season because holidays are tiring. I know that I can’t get immediate client work right now, but I know what I should be doing to prep to get work or to build my work out. There’s always something to do.
“I know that I can’t get immediate client work right now, but I know what I should be doing to prep to get work or to build my work out. There’s always something to do. ”
Emerline: With all the different clients and people you work with, what do you do to keep good chemistry going on set?
Melly: First and foremost you get the business portion out of the way. It’s important to be open and communicate what the logistics, budget, art direction, and goals are for the shoot. Once paperwork is done and that’s when we can start shooting. I approach each shoot in a similar fashion as a director on a film set. I like my shoots to feel more like hanging out instead of instructional —granted I’ll still throw out directions and orchestrate the subject to get the shot. There’s this idea I got from Richard Avedon: When you’re shooting someone, you’re bringing some sort of energy with your presence. Your subject vibes off of it and those energies mix together. Those mixes are what create very personal moments. That’s when you’re connected. The by-product of that connection is simply your photo.
“When you’re shooting someone, you’re bringing some sort of energy with your presence. Your subject vibes off of it and those energies mix together. Those mixes are what create very personal moments. That’s when you’re connected. The by-product of that connection is simply your photo. ”
Emerline: I'm curious about your thoughts on the 9-to-5 grind as a freelancer.
Melly: Anything freelance is unexpected. Even if you’re not working 9-5 everyone else is on the 9-5. So you have to work on their schedule. But besides that, in this instance, you have to be on the 9-5. You have to go hard on this lifestyle. I had a client in Taiwan this last summer so I was talking to them on their time zone. Australia is the worst! Their deadline is on a whole different day! So naturally, every day is not the same.
When I went back to college for my Bachelor of Arts, I remember I was freelancing at that time. I wasn’t drinking and I wasn’t partying with my friends. A lot of the times they would say, “You work for yourself! It shouldn’t be a problem.” They didn’t understand. Even though I work for myself, everyday I have to be working because it’s not like a regular job. At a regular job, even if you don’t try that hard, you still get a pay check. For me, if I don’t try at all, nothing is going to happen. If I try a little bit, nothing is going to happen for me. Every single day, it’s about how can I push a little harder than yesterday?
“ For me, if I don’t try at all, nothing is going to happen. If I try a little bit, nothing is going to happen for me. Every single day, it’s about how can I push a little harder than yesterday? ”
Emerline: What’s your balance like between work and play?
Melly: I think I have a healthy balance. I like what I do for work, but there’s always those other things I don’t like such as e-mailing and doing the taxes. No one likes to do that stuff. There’s a lot of paper work that others might not think creatives have to think about. The balance, it’s all new territory. Sometimes, the human psyche goes into the dark part of your mind: Why aren’t people looking at my things? Why is so-n-so getting things and I’m not?
I think in that sense, having something to balance you out, it soothes the mind. When I’m stressed, I work out a lot. I hang out with friends and do yoga. That way whenever I go into my work, it’s nothing but playing.
Emerline: Who inspires you and what's your creative circle like?
Melly:There’s a saying that you are the average of the 5 people you surround yourself with. I just try to surround myself with people that inspire me. People that I look up to and that keep me motivated. From Imaginary Zebra and my other friend Neon Blush, both of them are very encouraging in updating my blog more. Another power woman I look up to is Michelle Phan, she’s really sweet. Being able to organically build up an audience for make-up and then setting up your own store in SoHo is just crazy. All of us are self-motivated. We all know that this is it. Either you do this and make it work, or what else are you going to do?
Richard Avedon and Tyler Shields are also some greats that inspire me.
You have to surround yourself with people who aren’t going to be crying about not having a paycheck that week, people who are negative in that sense. You’re only going to feel that way about yourself. People who are always pumped like, “I’m broke but that’s okay, Tomorrow’s our day!” Then you’re only going to be excited. It might not be happening now, but it might happen tomorrow.