Born in Brisbane, Australia and currently based in Honolulu, Hawai’i, photographer Melanie Tjoeng gives us a serious case of wanderlust. Compelled by nature and the energy of places she captures, Tjoeng photographs moments and places to create a positive impact and believes photojournalism can be a powerful tool for change. We spoke to the photographer about her travels, her wide scope of inspirations and the importance of visual storytelling.
“I was born in Brisbane, Australia but my heart was born in Papua New Guinea”. Tjoeng grew up in the Sepik region of Wewak. “It was the most fantastic childhood there. Jungles, remote islands, tortoise friends, wild animals and all sorts of adventures. Living in the middle of nowhere was indeed idyllic to a child with curious eyes. I then went to school in Australia and spent my teenage years growing up there. I would still visit Papua New Guinea and travel continuously with my family. It was in 2004 that I moved to Hawai’i."
“I'm currently based in Honolulu, Hawai'i. It's hard to write a short concise list of the reasons why I love it here, but here's a shot. I love Hawai'i because the mana here is like no other. There is an activated energy unparalleled to many places. Living here is like connecting to the source, everyday. I also deeply respect and admire native Hawaiian culture. It's a beautiful and intentional culture. I love the people here, the food, the landscape. All of it. The land, the energy, the magic that resides here, the culture, the food and the way nothing feels like a chore for me here. Always happy and grateful to be here."
"I love film because it's romantic and it keeps secrets. It generally looks better to me too. I think its the nostalgia it brings."
“When I was younger I always took photos. I loved buying disposable film cameras and documenting my life. In Papua New Guinea my family had a film processing lab and I used to go and be fascinated by it and bring my film in to process. But it wasn't until 2009, the official year that I pursued photography as a career. It was after a trip to Perpignan, in France to a photo festival with a bunch of my friends who were all documentary photographers that I had one of those lightbulb moments; this is what I want to do, and I've never looked back.”
Tjoeng’s body of work showcases imagery of many beautiful places in the world and also people. When asked what her favourite project to work on was, Tjoeng admitted that it was a hard question to answer. “When I was photographing documentary stories I had some amazing and eye opening experiences. I Spent time in Klong Toey, the slums of Bangkok. I met incredible people. Days in the Yucatán of Mexico. Jungles of Papua New Guinea. Now I shoot mostly fashion and I absolutely love it. I've worked with so many cool people and brands and magazines. It's hard to choose one.” Without a doubt, Tjoeng has an eye for capturing moments in places that leave you with a sense of wander and what captivates the photographer is culture; "Is it alive, colourful and dynamic? That's why I like developing countries more, generally. Because they are usually way more alive. It puts you on the edge. Outside of your comfort zone. I live for that." Having visited so many parts of the world, we wondered what countries are next on her travel bucket list; "Places I haven't been that I would love to - Iceland, Jamaica, Jordan and Brazil."
There are numerous things that Tjoeng thinks are important about visual story telling; "I think photography crosses linguistic and sometimes cultural borders and can have an important impact on the world. In saying that, some photography can have a negative impact - say on body image, etc. But in saying that, visual storytelling has done a lot of positive things for the world. Photojournalism has been a very powerful tool for change." Some of Tjoeng's biggest creative inspirations are; "Other artists not just photographers but painters, musicians, writers, poets - creatives in general. Some of my favourites (to name a few) are Sean Ryan Pierce, Mustafah Abdulaziz, Cass Bird, ( all photographers) Tracy Chapman, Bon Iver, Enya (all musicians) Barbara Kingsolver, Vladimir Nabokov, Pablo Neruda, (writers) I'm also very inspired by the environment and what I see in the world around me."
We also asked the photographer what her favourite quote to live by is; "People need wild places. Whether or not we think we do, we do. We need to be able to taste grace and know again that we desire it. We need to experience a landscape that is timeless, whose agenda moves at the pace of speciation and glaciers. To be surrounded by a singing, mating, howling commotion of other species, all of which love their lives as much as we do ours, and none of which could possibly care less about us in our place. It reminds us that our plans are small and somewhat absurd. It reminds us why, in those cases in which our plans might influence many future generations, we ought to choose carefully. Looking out on a clean plank of planet earth, we can get shaken right down to the bone by the bronze-eyed possibility of lives that are not our own." ― Barbara Kingsolver