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Top photographer inspiring hope

By UCOL on Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Three images of a woman with breast cancer

An award-winning UCOL Applied Visual Imaging student is well on her way to using photography with a strong social commentary to create discussion.

Palmerston North-based Meli Berends, in her third year of the Bachelor of Applied Visual Imaging, was awarded Silver with Distinction, and Bronze, for the two images she entered - and the overall title of Student of the Year – at the 2016 Epson/NZIPP Iris Professional Photography Awards.

As a photographer Meli is passionate about using her work to raise awareness about issues. One of her 2016 winning images, black and white, is part of a series she is creating about children growing up too fast. The other, a triptych, is a series of self-portraits telling part of her own life story – a battle with breast cancer. 

“I like to think the self-portrait is an image of hope, showing the life of a young woman with breast cancer can have a happy ending as mine has,” she says. “I also hope that it creates awareness that breast cancer isn’t just an older women’s disease and younger women in their 30’s and 20’s are affected by it too.”

Reflecting on entering into the Epson/NZIPP professional photography competition, Meli says it was a great opportunity. “I entered to have my work judged by professional photographers. Having your work judged by a panel of five is rather nerve wracking and of course it is subjective but as a student I was able to learn from them.”  

The annual Epson/NZIPP Iris Professional Photography Awards event is New Zealand’s only professional photography competition, recognising and honouring the best in contemporary photography from New Zealand and overseas professionals. It was held in June in Wellington in conjunction with InFocus 2016. Overall, UCOL Diploma in Photographic Imaging and Bachelor of Visual Imaging students from Palmerston North and Auckland picked up 41 awards at the competition out of 60 given out in total – made up of one Silver with Distinction, 11 Silver, and 31 Bronze. This year marks the 12th year in a row a UCOL student has picked up the Student title at the event. 

After moving to Palmerston North from Christchurch to study at UCOL, Meli is now nearing the end of her third year of the Bachelor of Applied Visual Imaging. For her final year project she has created a piece of work which celebrates unity within diversity, welcoming the viewer to look deeper. 

“Each participant within the project has a story of their own to share and regardless of their story the message is simple: ‘I am more than just…’

“For me, photography is a tool that can be used to highlight, help, create awareness, and celebrate. This has been a project very close to my heart as I also feel that even though my own breast cancer journey has been life changing I don't want for it to define me.”

Meli has created a book containing images from the project, with a small exhibition planned for participants later this month and the intention to share consented images online. 

After graduating, Meli intends to specialise in birth photography.

“Being able to capture the moments and emotions between the expectant parents and their support people is so special to me. Your baby will be born once, that moment will never come again; memories of the birth can be very clouded and seeing the images is a great way to remember forgotten moments. It’s not all about the crowning but the effort and love to bring them into the world and that first precious meet. There is so much love and emotion, it’s wonderful.”