Currently a senior at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, Jessica Manley began the project “Melissa” six years ago while still a high school student. She began working with her younger sister, Melissa, to explore the way media influences the understanding of ‘normal’ in young girls, and how it creates delusional ideals.
Over time, the project has become, to some extent, a collaboration between not only Jessica and her camera, but with Melissa and also their mother. Jessica actively seeks out a dark aspect to the images, crossing innocence with a faint gloss of the media influence. Her photos use Melissa as a canvas to show a young girl not just “trying” to be a woman, but in fact easily embodying womanly traits without being overtly sexualized. An effect that, Jessica says, makes many men uncomfortable and that many women relate to almost immediately. Playing dress up, acting the part of the adult, mimicing romantic moments portrayed by leading ladies from movies — doing little things that as we grow add up can to uncertainty, confidence issues, and more.
I caught Jessica for an interview to dig deeper into the topics of media influence and collaborating with her sister.
Art Threat: To start, can you tell me about “Melissa” the project?
Jessica: About six years ago I became really interested in the media and how it impacts young minds. How we’re bombarded with imagery and delusional ideas assisted by rapidly advancing technology like Photoshop – which really distorts the image of what a woman, a young girl, or a teenager is supposed to look like. So I began photographing my little sister Melissa and putting her in these scenes that were kind of too mature for her age, and that were kind of disturbing for the people in my suburban town. When I moved to New York to study photography at the School of Visual Arts I began to pursue my project with a whole new outlook and a bigger audience. I continued to photograph her, setting up scenes and using personal items and personal experiences to inspire the photographs.
So the photos that are on your website, are those from a certain period of time or over time? Because she kind of looks all the same age.
They actually span 2008-2012, so the last four years.
What kind of photography are you using?
I used to shoot a lot of film in the beginning, but recently for my senior thesis I began shooting digital for time and money sake. So that I can produce more work more quickly and more efficiently. But my personal preference is to shoot with film, Kodak Portra 400, the natural colour — I don’t think they even make it anymore.
You mentioned that you do some of the setting up of the photos, rather than just following Melissa and photographing her life. How much is she involved in the project with you?
As she’s gotten older and watched the project develop she’s been giving me more of her input and telling me cool ideas. I’d say if you were looking for a percentage it’s gone from 90/10 to 60/40 now. It’s 40% her 60% me, and then also my mother comes into play all the time and she is such a huge influence and support for my project – I couldn’t do it without her. Especially with issues around questions about exploitation.
I was going to ask about that.
I already know, I get it all the time. Want me to go there?
As far as the issue of exploitation of young girls there’s been a lot of flak in the industry about it. One prominent example is Sally Mann, if you’re familiar with her work [Mann is popular in part for her stunning photographs of adolescent girls and of her children]. Sally Mann is a huge influence for me as well, just all that she took on with that controversy. I use my sister as a Jane Doe, a pure slate, a clean slate, as just my muse and my model, to express the things that I want to say about media pressures and childhood and growth. I don’t use her as a specific example. I feel that the project could be done with any child, any young girl. It’s more about the imagery and the messages, as opposed to her as a person. I don’t feel that it’s exploitative of her as an individual but that it’s exploitative of deconstructing moral code and creating things people are not accustomed to seeing. It’s exploitative that the media is pressing these young girls to look and act a certain way. So on the one hand the project is a raw inside look about the damages that can be done, these slightly disturbing images. I get a lot of different responses between males and females too.
What is that difference?
Males have a tendency to see my work and then be kind of taken back and not know if they’re supposed to look at it, they’re standoffish. Whereas females get into it and ask a lot of questions. It depends on who the person is, but males have this “wait, am I not supposed to be looking at this?” kind of attitude, because it’s a little bit controversial. Their frame of mind is totally different.
Melissa must be pretty present about the influence of media having worked on this, are you seeing her being affected by the media as she grows and gives you more input?
There was a period of time where she was feeling inadequate – I think every young girl does. As far as the media influences on her I think she knows that it’s not real, and all the stuff we do is pretty much set up to mock the industry — to make these fashion portraits, but at the same time create these dark underlying tones. I think it’s important for her to see that, but I don’t really know yet if she’s at the age where she can look back and criticize. She’s only in fifth grade, and she’s not where she can see the under tones, but she’s very much involved, she loves doing it, and she loves coming to my shows.
And in doing this project have you had any Ah-hah moments yourself where you’ve realized how you’ve been manipulated by media as you grew up?
Definitely, I’ve struggled with self esteem issues and weight issues, and all the stuff that goes into growing up in this day and time, and it’s very deceiving. Media messages are distorted and the time we’re spending on these messages may be great marketing, but it has damaging impacts on the way that people view themselves. It’s a damaging process to the psyche and self esteem, which I think is the most important thing. The way you see yourself, project yourself, and feel about yourself should be first and foremost. With my work I’m trying to address how, from a young age, what this can do and that it definitely has an impact. It has had an impact on me, it has had an impact on my mother.
What is the future of this project for you?
I’m graduating from the school of visual arts in May, and afterwards I plan on documenting Melissa’s teen years and hopefully the more she grows the more the project will grow and push the limits more as she grows, the more things we can do and the more she’ll be exposed to different things it will be a great platform for me. I hope to keep using current events as inspiration and continue to bring awareness to this issue.