Touted by TIME Magazine as one of the top 50 photographers to follow in America, Melanie Tjoeng’s star is on the rise.
The talented creative has lived in Australia, Papua New Guinea, and Hawaii – and with such a rich cultural heritage, she hopes to reflect those experiences through her work.
“I was born in Brisbane, but I grew up on the Gold Coast. I’d frequently travel between Papua New Guinea and Australia. My dad grew up in Papua New Guinea, and my grandparents had started their own company that went national over there.”
Tjoeng is of a mixed background, with an Asian father and Maltese mother – and she’s always been very proud of that fact.
“I’ve noticed growing up in Australia, with the mixed friends that I had, it went either one of two ways: they were ashamed of being mixed, or of a non-Caucasian culture, or they’re extremely proud. And I really fight for it.”
“It was really tough on the Gold Coast. It was very racist where I grew up, and just hearing what people would say to my dad, and to other Asian kids in my school, I was very conscious of that. That’s probably a big reason why I didn’t like growing up on the Gold Coast, and why I loved Hawaii. It’s so much more inclusive, and culturally very colourful.”
Tjoeng first visited Hawaii on a family holiday when she was twelve years old, and was struck by how much it reminded her of growing up in Papua New Guinea.
She then revisited the U.S. state over a decade ago for college, eventually deciding to settle there long-term.
“I think of Hawaii as my home. I feel comfortable here, and there are like-minded people here. Everyone in Hawaii generally has a foot in each culture. There’s a Western aspect, but there’s also a very Asian or Polynesian aspect – and I think it’s a nice mix of how I grew up and related to people.”
“I’ve always felt really close to the Chinese side of my family. We still have an ancestral home in China, and I’ve travelled there, and to Hong Kong.”
“I think being culturally aware and sensitive, and understanding your roots is really important. My mum is half-Maltese, and she never embraced her Maltese side. When she grew up, because of immigration, it wasn’t ‘good’ to be Maltese or Italian or Greek. She was always really ashamed of it, and I think it’s sad that she doesn’t get to embrace that part of her. But I love being of a mixed background, because it gives you a total different perspective of yourself. And I think you approach and see things differently.”
Tjoeng had always been quite creative, having painted and drawn from a young age, but it wasn’t until a friend of hers – fellow photographer Ying Ang – saw her photographs in Hawaii that she thought about pursuing it as a career.
“I went to a photojournalist festival in France, and it was there that I realised that this was what I wanted to do. So I did that for a little while, and some documentary work, then I went into fashion. I never thought I would actually join the fashion industry because of all the stigmas attached to it, but I found it a really positive experience.”
With over 30,000 followers on social media platform Instagram, Tjoeng gets plenty of work through the networking site.
“I like the sharing aspect of Instagram, and how it’s a platform for me to share my work, and see other people’s work as well. It’s been such an amazing tool and really propelled me and my name.”
“I’ve exhibited in a few different places already, and I’ve had some independent art shows, which I’ve really enjoyed and would like to continue doing.”
Tjoeng’s work is playful and diverse – these trademark qualities play homage to her unique upbringing and at the same time reflects where she is today.
“I just like to follow my heart, and photography saved my life. I don’t even know what I would do without it. So in terms of goals, I just want to continue to shoot, and travel, and meet great people, and work with amazing companies and tell stories.”
You can see more of Melanie's work on her website.