When photographer Melyssa Anishnabie finds abandoned houses, she looks beyond the decay and their broken-down parts. There are stories within them that are waiting to be told with her camera and lens. Her approach is thoughtful and delicate and it shows in her photographs.
Melyssa travels to different places in Canada with hopes of capturing frames that pay respect to these places that were once filled with memories of families. There is a certain feeling of nostalgia in her shots - a calmness in the solitude that begs the viewer to look closer into the frames. In this interview, she tells us why she chooses to photograph them and how important it is to be able to tell the stories of these forgotten places.
Hello, Melyssa, and welcome to the Magazine! Please introduce yourself to our readers.
Hello and thanks for having me! My name is Melyssa Anishnabie and I am a Native Canadian working in the Toronto film industry as a camera assistant. I am obsessed with cameras, cats, and 4Runners, and practice film photography, developing, and printing as my passion and hobby.
How are you doing these crazy times? What's keeping you busy?
During the initial lock-down in Canada, I took the time to set up my darkroom in my tiny bathroom and learned how to print black-and-white photos. I quickly learned how easy it was to spend an entire day sitting on the edge of my bathtub in the dark. Luckily, the TV show I work on was one of the first ones back up and filming this past summer, so I've been pretty busy working since July. Now that my show has wrapped and things are slowing down again, I plan to dive back into darkroom printing, as well as driving around and photographing abandoned houses. There is nothing more socially distant than that!
What's the first thing you're going to do once this is all over?
Honestly, I haven't thought that far ahead because I don't think this will be over for some time to come. I am probably just going to keep working as much as possible and hopefully get a couple of Ontario based road trips in wherever I can.
How did your photographic journey start? What made you want to shoot photographs?
When I was a teenager, my great grandmother gave me her Pentax KX SLR. She was a painter and photographer and always encouraged me to pursue my creative urges, so having her camera was a very special gift. We couldn't always afford film so I would often just carry her camera around with me and look at the world through the viewfinder. I enjoyed playing with shallow depth of field and detailed close-ups.
For quite a few years, I put down film in favor of digital and learned a lot about my photographic style that way, however it always felt as if something was missing from what I was trying to capture. One day a friend let me borrow her Afga Isolette medium format camera and I realized that what was missing was film. I tried shooting 35 mm again but at that point, medium-format had stolen my heart so I bought a beaten-up old Rolleiflex TLR and never looked back.
Why choose film in this day and age?
There is something just so magical about film, especially medium format, that can't be captured any other way. I feel as if film brings an extra dimension to photographs, and instills them with a feeling that doesn't exist elsewhere. I enjoy the slow, hands-on process of film photography from start to finish and I feel it has made me a better photographer by forcing me to consider all my shots before I take them.
What inspires you to shoot?
I love light and music, colors, textures. I love challenging myself to approach a mundane scene and trying to find a creative way to capture an element from it. I love decay and solitude, using shallow depth of field to isolate my subject while still trying to find a way to form a story within the frame. All these things inspire me to shoot.
We love how you choose old and abandoned locations to be your subject. What's the story behind it?
All my life I have been fascinated with archaeology and history. I have always been drawn to abandoned houses and the mystery of the families who once existed within those walls. Who were they? Why did they leave everything behind? Perhaps it is because “home” has always been an unstable factor in my life? Growing up we moved around a lot, so finding homes left abandoned and filled with relics of generational family life fills me with a lot of sadness and curiosity. I try my best to photograph these homes and relics respectfully and always leave the homes as I found them. While they may be abandoned, they are still the remains of someone else's memories and life and deserve to be treated with care.
We are also digging the mood of your photos. The natural lighting gives your shots a dramatic effect. Was this a style you were going for?
I love shooting with natural lighting and often aim to shoot on overcast days when the light is soft and lush and falls just so. Because I do photograph a lot inside abandoned homes, bringing my own lights isn't an option as I try to keep my presence as minimal as possible. I think that just the nature of shooting inside houses lit only by their windows lends itself to that dramatic look, though I do try to find scenes where the shadows being cast are just as important as the subjects themselves.
How would you describe your shooting style?
I would describe my shooting style as low and slow. I love shooting as wide open as possible with my aperture, as well as getting down low and including foreground elements for that extra sense of depth. I prefer shooting on cameras with waist-level viewfinders, otherwise, I often find myself in strange positions with my face far too close to the ground, and given some of the environments I find myself in, the ground can get pretty gross.
Where do you see yourself shooting in the next five years?
Hopefully, in five years I'll have my dream cabin in the woods up north and will have a bit more time to dedicate to photography. Ideally, I'll be able to split my time between working in Toronto and being a forest hermit. I don't know if I'll still be photographing abandoned houses as much as I do now, however an abandoned house road-trip across Canada is definitely on my radar at some point in the next five years!
What's your dream photography project?
My dream photography project has always been to travel across Canada to remote Native reserves in order to document both the good and bad aspects of life there. Canadian indigenous people are beautiful, resilient, and good-natured people who have encountered far too much discrimination and abuse at the hands of the Canadian government.
Growing up, I witnessed a lot of racism being directed at myself and my Ojibwa father, and it feels as if very little has changed in that regard. I want to show Canadians that my people are so much more than all the horribly negative stereotypes that are perpetuated in the news. We have lost so much of our culture and identity and there are so many untold stories that still get brushed aside and ignored.
In your opinion, how does someone push their creative boundaries? How do you deal with creative block?
I feel that experimenting and not being afraid to fail is the best way to push creative boundaries. If you are trying something new, don't approach it with an audience in mind because that may subconsciously influence the art you are trying to create. I know that can be very hard, especially in this day and age of social media and Instagram likes. This is something I quite often struggle with disconnecting from myself.
When I am faced with a creative block, I will often set aside my cameras for other forms of mental stimulation. This can come in the form of visually interesting movies, video games, or tv shows. I will browse the portfolios of inspiring artists, listen to inspiring music, or just pack my cameras and go for a drive. If I am really struggling with a block but still want to shoot, I will try to use a film/camera combo that I don't often attempt, or I'll use a lens that I don't always reach for. Forcing myself to approach a scene with a different set of tools can often push me to try new things I normally wouldn't do.
What's your favorite camera/lens and film combo?
My favorite camera/lens combo is my Hasselblad 500C/M and the Zeiss Sonnar 150 mm f/4. I love the medium format combined with the nice shallow depth of field that lens has despite being an f/4. That being said, I rarely shoot on it these days due to space restrictions in the abandoned houses I photograph. I often default to the Zeiss Planar 80 mm f/2.8 because it is wider and easier to shoot handheld in low light situations if needed.
What does a perfect day look like for Melyssa Anishnabie?
A perfect day for me involves waking up in a tent in the middle of the wilderness, starting a campfire, and making coffee while watching the mist rise off a lake. Unfortunately, I live in the city, so my perfect day doesn't happen very often!
Any last words for our readers?
Don't go into abandoned houses by yourself! Always test the floors and never, ever trust them. Be careful of hidden wells on the property, often the covers are rotten and buried under years of grass. Carry a first aid kit in your vehicle, wear sturdy shoes, take nothing but photographs, and don't reveal locations to anyone. Be respectful of the families who still own those houses and of the lives lived there.
Thanks for making it this far! Now get out there and start shooting!