New York-based photographer Mike Mellia recently joined supermodel Nykhor Paul and other figures to turn the world’s attention to the crisis in South Sudan through a portrait collection entitled Our side of the story: South Sudan. This collection of 14 portraits illustrates the anguish of those who escaped their war-torn country and lived to tell a powerful story. [above: Ajak Deng: Supermodel (Louis Vuitton, Vogue, Lanvin), activist, and refugee].
Many of the beautiful people photographed by Mellia have moved on to create a fantastic career and future for themselves: some are supermodels strutting the runways of Louis Vuitton and Lanvin, others are rubbing shoulders with Hollywood stars in upcoming blockbusters. We were curious about Mellia’s inspiration and future projects, so we stole a moment of his time to interview him.
How did you hear about these remarkable South Sudanese people doing incredible things in their new homeland?
Creative director Laura Lanteri introduced me to supermodel Nykhor Paul, who is the founder of the ‘We Are Nilotic’ initiative for South Sudanese women. I felt the urge to tell the story of these 14 extraordinary people and the story behind South Sudan’s conflict. I have always been interested in conceptual photography that relates to larger ideas through emotional storytelling and allegory.
The subjects all look very pensive in the photos. What were the instructions you gave them in regards to posing?
When I met the subjects, they told me about their experiences in South Sudan and in the US, which was very emotional and also inspirational. Many of my subjects were refugees or former child-soldiers before escaping to America. I just let them sit back and tell their own stories visually. For me there is a very strong sense of individuality and uniqueness in all 14 of the portraits.
Over what time frame were the photos taken and how did you maintain such consistency in style across all the shots?
The work was made over several days here in New York City. My style of portraiture is very natural and also very painterly. I think that the light that comes through a window in old Renaissance paintings is very beautiful… it took [the artists] many years to refine this style of portraiture and also to be able to execute it consistently.
Was there one subject who impressed you most in terms of what had to they overcome to get to where they are now?
I felt blessed to have met all fourteen of these amazing subjects. Many were refugees, some were child-soldiers who were forced to fight, yet all of them are passionate about using their influence now to help South Sudan.
Any plans for continuing this series or one like it?
For now my hope is that people will continue to share their stories and images, inspiring everyone to understand the conflict in South Sudan emotionally and not only politically.