Profile: Kelly McIlvenny

Profile by Lauren Kessler

Kelly McIlvenny is a visual journalist based on the Gold Coast, Australia. She is currently working on her Doctorate of Visual Art. I spoke to her about what inspired her to begin a career in photojournalism, as well as what keeps her motivated. Kelly spoke to me about her constantly evolving career, as well as new projects and opportunities on the horizon.

What inspired you to pursue a career in photojournalism?

There are so many moments that lead to me pursuing a career in photojournalism. I will share the one where I fell in love with photography instead.

When I was eight, maybe nine, years old my grandfather gave me his old Nikon. My family was living in the US at the time, so it was something special to share with a man I barely new but deeply loved. I remember one day convincing (bribing) my younger siblings to come outside in the late afternoon on a cool day, posing them for some portraits. But then something magical happened, my young sister attacked her older brother in the way only sisters can with love and vengeance at the same moment. Colliding on the ground. Click. The warm light on their giggling little faces making their cold rose colour cheeks even more prominent. I could not wait to have the film developed at the local CVS, excited to send it off to the man who loved photography, but loved me more. It seems silly, but this moment shows everything I love about the little black box—the camera’s miraculous ability to capture something already gone. To slow my normally racing mind down, to be in that moment, to save it for later. I was hooked.

Did you have any prior knowledge of photojournalism before you began studying it?

Yes, some. I had read of its history and who were some of the greats. But not the important things, like its emotional hold on you or how to read the visual narratives.

What are you currently working on for your doctorate?

In short, it is about an army. This army has no weapons, and the vast majority of its members are women. Yet its infantry numbers over 50,000. It is an army of volunteers combating maternal and infant mortality rates in Nepal, supported by the nurses and doctors of health outposts and hospitals often several hours away. So my work is on telling this largely untold story, in hopes that these women’s achievements and challenges will be seen, honoured, and continue to be supported. My doctoral work is a continuation of my honours work entitled Welcome Labour Room documenting the issues and challenges surrounding pregnancy and childbirth in Nepal.

What is the most rewarding part about being a photojournalist?

For me it is the experiences it has lead me to, and the people I have had the privilege of working with. No project is the same, as no day is the same on any one project. Life moves on, and it is such an honor to have the opportunity to watch it. In particular, it is wonderful to know that my visual language has helped One Heart convince thousands of people to help thousands of women in rural Nepal have a safe pregnancy and childbirth. It is priceless that kind of joy. Likewise, the time I have spent with the women of Baglung district in Nepal are memories I will never forget.

What are the biggest challenges you have faced?

Like all travellers bed bugs, Giardia, and other digestive track implosions come to mind—finding the will to do anything but sleep in 50 degree Celsius heat. Perhaps more difficult are the emotional hurdles, both in convincing yourself this is the right path despite a whole industry of people telling you to run the other way—photojournalism is dying they say, there are no jobs in media, you are a terrible person for wanting to photograph childbirth in a third world country, and the list goes on. On a more personal level, photographing women who are exactly your age and will never have the same opportunities in life that you have been given because they were forced to marry at fifteen and now have three children and are severely malnourished from living below the poverty line, is incredibly emotional. Then trying to balance your desire to work harder and do more with an instinctual desire to spend time with your own loved ones. It is a challenge, sometimes heartbreaking, but always worth it.

What do you strive to achieve for your future career?

My ideas of my future career are constantly evolving as new opportunities and projects come forward. If I have learned anything from the global financial crisis, it is to be flexible and find new ways of making your goals possible. When I finish my doctorate I hope to gain a place working as an Australian Youth Ambassador working as a researcher or communications assistant for one of AusAid’s partner organizations abroad. Beyond that I am not an ambitious person, as long as I continue to find a way to work on projects that have meaning I will live with no regrets.

Are you always satisfied with the work you produce?

No, but I am always grateful for the experience. I am still learning, I imagine that will never change.

Who inspires your work?

Visually many photographers have inspired my work, perhaps more importantly Jack Picone, Stephen Dupont, Fracesco Zizola, Ed Giles and Trent Parke inspire me as human beings and how they approach their work and in turn their life—they are all extremely generous with their knowledge, a quality I admire greatly. I am also greatly inspired by my peers, for instance Raphella Rosella’s work on young mothers captures beauty—reaching to a place beyond the trivial to meaningful engagement.

On your website you have a section for commercial photography. Do you prefer commercial or documentary style photography, and why?

While I take on commercial projects for the health of my wallet, the commercial projects I choose to work on reflect my personal interests and documentary style. Individuals choose to hire me for that style, so it is not one or the other. While long form reportage is definitely my passion, I enjoy working creatively with commercial clients.

What are some of the lessons photojournalism has taught you, and what advice would you give to emerging and aspiring photojournalists?

I am an emerging photojournalist, but here are a few rough guidelines:

• Everyone has a story. Each is valuable beyond measure, because it represents a life lived. Respect each story as if it was a life.
• There is no such thing as being invisible, so be mindful of your presence—set a positive tone with open body language and an open mind.
• You will miss many photographs, but only you can lose those memories.
• Choose your own path, there is no right way when wandering through the creative forest.
• Never give in to cynicism.
• Keep a journal.
• Share cups of tea with many people.
• Come prepared but open-minded.
• Take the road not taken.

One Heart World-wide:
Kelly’s work can be viewed at:

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