Her work is bold and gritty, and she’s a damn good storyteller. Melissa Renwick has earned the reputation of being a great documentary photographer – she’s been named one of the best in Canada. Her work is currently featured in an exhibition in Rome called 30 Under 30 / Women Photographers, presented by Photo Boite. She has also been recognized by The Magenta Foundation, COPA, and was the News Photographers Association of Canada’s Photojournalist of the Year for 2015 and 2016.
Renwick’s talent emerged as a student at Calgary’s Mount Royal University. This was quickly followed by a prestigious internship with award-winning photojournalist Todd Korol. Since then, she has passionately covered stories for The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, The Canadian Press, VICE, Getty Images, Reuters, and TVO, among others. One of her Toronto Star stories, Lethal Legacy, explored the lives of a group of former General Electric employees who claimed that they were exposed to chemicals and human carcinogens, causing a range of illnesses. Her story explored the pain and suffering the workers experienced day-to-day, which contrasted their unified loyalty and appreciation for the company that employed them. This was the story that earned her NPAC’s 2016 Photojournalist of the Year.
Another Toronto Star story called “Beaten, Branded, Bought, and Sold” focused on Canadian sex trafficking that was taking place in hotels and motels along highways across the GTA and Ontario. Renwick became involved with the story when reporter Olivia Carville, texted her one afternoon with a proposition to work on a new story. Carville said that it would be potentially dangerous, have little chance of success, and likely take up a lot of their personal time. Renwick replied with “definitely.” They got to work the following night. I asked Renwick how these stories have impacted her, and she told me that “these stories aren’t about how I was impacted in telling them. They’re about the issues and the people who have languished because of these social issues. I make images so viewers can form their own opinions, which hopefully inspires positive changes.”
I have always been impressed with how well Renwick’s stories are edited. But, like many professional photographers, she admits to struggling with this process and often calls on her mentor, Todd Korol, for guidance. “I find it hard to detach myself from certain images because they may have been really significant to me or hard to capture. But, it’s important to always consider if they add to or build upon the story I’m trying to tell. I make selects as I shoot the story, make a wide edit when I’ve finished shooting the story, then cut and arrange the final selects as a series of 12 to 15 images from there. It’s an evolving process that’s very much a work in progress. If I can’t defend why an image should stay, then it likely doesn’t add to the story – which is something that I continually come back to.”
She recently started working with film, which is an entirely different process. “When I’m photographing people (using film), our connection and our rhythm isn’t interrupted by digital technology. I’m not constantly looking at the back of my camera. Instead, all of my attention is focused on the person standing in front of me. And, because of that, I’ve found that people are willing to give a little bit more of themselves” said Renwick.
Today, she can be found working on a new project on Vancouver Island. When asked about it, Renwick simply told me that it was under wraps for now, but she is hopeful to complete it within the next year or two. We look forward to seeing how Renwick’s work evolves as she explores new mediums while documenting the lives of the people who inspire her the most. To stay connected to her work, visit her website, or check out her Instagram account.