Melanin Rising, a multimedia series by esteemed New Zealand-Sri Lankan portrait photographer and writer Abhi Chinniah, was launched at Depot Artspace on Saturday, the 3rd of September. Since opening to the public on Tuesday the 6th of September, Melanin Rising has already been featured in and received widespread acclaim from RNZ, Newshub and Viva.
The exhibition is open to the public until Wednesday the 28th of September. Aside from the physical exhibition at Depot Artspace in Devonport (Auckland, New Zealand), stories from overseas, select portraits and commentary can also be viewed online at https://loveyourmelanin.com.
Abhi – Congratulations on the exhibition! Can you please briefly introduce yourself and your new photography series, Melanin Rising?
Kia ora! My name is Abhi Chinniah. I am a portrait photographer and writer. Drawing from my lived experiences, I use portraiture to explore colourism and elevate marginalised voices, women of colour, and ethnic communities.
My debut photographic series, Light Skin Dark Skin, used portraits of kiwi women to explore the journeys people have to take because of the colour of their skin. The National Library of New Zealand acquired my most recent photo series, A Migrant’s Path, which sought the connection between home, roots, and belonging. My ongoing work celebrates the diverse cultures existing in Aotearoa.
Born in Ōtautahi Christchurch to Sri Lankan Malaysian parents, I grew up in East Coast Malaysia and now live in Tāmaki Makaurau, Aotearoa New Zealand.
Melanin Rising uses portraits, essays, and interviews to understand skin-lightening practices and media representation of dark-skinned people while looking at what we can do to create a world where there is no shadeism. At the core of this photo series sits an important message: love your melanin.
What inspired you to work on this photography series?
I was born in Ōtautahi Christchurch. Being one of the few dark-skinned faces at school was always pointed out to me. At that point, my father had lived in Aotearoa New Zealand for over 20 years. My sister, who is ten years older than me, had also been in the New Zealand schooling system for a while. All of us faced skin discrimination.
My father and sister experienced much colourism in New Zealand. My experiences came later, in Malaysia, where I went to school before moving back here. It was quite a unique position to be in because I faced two different kinds of Colourism: inside and outside my community.
Inside my community, I was given skin-lightening creams and told I was too dark. Outside my community, I was perceived as inferior and stupid, like I should know my place as a dark-skinned woman. I was foreign, exotic, and a bad decision-maker. The list goes on.
Growing up, whenever I saw people who looked like me in traditional wear in magazines or photography, especially in a documentary setting, they were never given the agency to tell their own stories. You would have to look at these photos and think up a narrative that seemed fitting. Often, these photos were taken by people in positions of privilege who may or may not have been there with the right intention.
For me and my work, it’s very important that I give visibility to the people in my portraits. You look at their faces, hear their voices, and read their words. They have a strong presence that exists outside of a still image. As for why I don’t just video them — I love photography; there’s just something so fulfilling about taking still images!
What made you decide to make photography a career?
In my community, you would grow up to either be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or accountant. As migrants and immigrants, many of us move across oceans for a better life. We seek the stability and visibility we may not have gotten where we were born (or wherever one feels home is to them). In my first year at the University of Auckland, I pursued a law degree, then it was accounting, and in my final year, Marketing & Management. Just the idea of making photography something I could do for a living wasn’t even something I considered.
I remember my father noticing that I liked photography before I realised it. When I was a teenager, I had a Sony point-and-shoot that I used to take “photos of my friends.” In hindsight, those were portraits of people! One day, papa came home with a tripod. I had no idea what it was. He explained that I could mount my camera on this thing and take landscape photos that were not blurry. I never thought much of these experiences until later, at around age 24, when I picked up a camera again and was like, hey, I really like this and have kind of been doing this my entire life but never thought of it as something I could take seriously.
Upon graduation, I worked full-time in corporate marketing. Every weekend, without fail, I would practice photography. I photographed anyone I could find, all unpaid. Any leftover income I had after paying bills I would use to buy props and rent backdrops to set up shoots for people — people who perhaps didn’t care about all the effort. Today, I am getting better at knowing my worth. Artists should always be treated with respect. A career in the arts is harder than any office job I have ever had.
Last year, at age 29, I was made redundant from my full-time marketing job. It was a blessing in disguise. For the first time in my life, I decided to take a break and really focus on making photography a career. As I am passionate about social issues that affect my community, and because it is so hard to break into documentary photography, I still work part-time in marketing to earn a living. Leaving the stability a full-time job provides is hard. It’s a massive risk. I have more bad days than good days, but I hope that I’ll look back and think, “I’m glad I did that.”
For those who may not be familiar, what is colourism?
Colourism is discrimination based on skin colour. It often focuses on experiences within one’s own racial group. The term was first coined in 1982 by Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker. I can’t recall how I first learned the word, but how incredible is it that there is a term to describe an entire lifetime’s worth of discrimination based on the colour of your skin? Colourism is everywhere. It’s alive and well in many, if not all, parts of the world.
What’s one thing you’d like your audience to think about or take away from this exhibition?
Melanin Rising is for everyone, not just people with dark skin. It’s about loving who you are, as you are, and when the opportunity arises, telling other people that they should love themselves too. Words hold power.
Do you have any final words or messages you’d like to share?
Melanin Rising is on at Depot Artspace until the 28th of September. You should also visit https://loveyourmelanin.com/ for more essays and commentary.
There is a page on the website where you can leave a comment, please do! You can leave a comment or your thoughts here: https://loveyourmelanin.com/conversation.