Smile explores both binary and also nonbinary gender identities of pre-teens and teens. Consider it sort of a "back to school" photo project - but instead of cookie-cutter portraits where teens are expected to conform to societal norms, the photos in this series are collaborative - teens are asked to express their gender identities on camera and offer a brief spoken description on camera.
The purpose of this project is to celebrate the various ways teens express themselves and their gender. Media often determines the gender of people based on their appearance - and media also subscribes worth to how people dress and how they act. Kids (especially girls), for example, are often told to "smile" for the camera. School pictures often portray kids with perfect hair and shirts/dresses that are chosen by parents. Instead, this project allows teens to present themselves to the media (and to their parents, guardians, and communities!) as they choose, and to offer their own commentary. They can wear their street clothes, dress as fantastically or demurely as they choose, or wear nothing at all.
Although Melissa is directing the photography of this project, she is collaborating with teen filmmakers via Advice Project Media to create a video. Photographs, a video, and written stories will all be a part of the final project.
Bawock: The Village of Widows
In 2007 here was an intertribal war between the villages of Bali and Bawock in the Northwest region of Cameroon. Bali, consisting of 50,000 villagers, destroyed the village of Bawock, which only had 6,000 ,members. Farmland was razed, homes were burned to the ground, and the palace of the fon (king) and cultural artifacts going back hundreds of years were were destroyed. Worse, most of the men who were of the age to fight were brutally killed, leaving behind a large community of widows.
Traditionally, Bawock had widow rites that mandated that widows shave their heads, sleep naked on banana mats for a week, and eat from the ground. The fon, however, deeming these rites cruel, disbanded them.
Today, the village continues to rebuild. A widow's hall was built to host activities, women appear to have more rights, and both men and women participate in sports and cultural events. Through the lenses of photography, videography, and words, this project explores what it means to be a "village of widows" in Cameroon.
For this project Melissa has partnered with a NYC-hospice center for children. She will work with a few families to record the stories of their children's lives by documenting their experiences in hospice care as well as illuminating moments of life, death, and everything between. The project will serve as a visual memory for families, and will also help to break the cultural taboo about talking about the deaths of children. It will provide a space for grieving, but also for celebrating the lives and memories of young people.
This project is currently in development. More information coming soon.