A version of this story appears in Issue 79 of Huck. Get your copy now, or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
Raised in Syracuse, NY, but firmly based in New York City, Mel D. Cole is a self-taught, award-winning photographer. He specialises in music, sports, nightlife, travel, street documentary, brand, and most recently, photojournalism. He has documented some of America’s most volatile protests, marches and riots, and positioned himself right in the thick of things on January 6th, capturing the raw emotion as the infamous events unfolded. With a career spanning more than two decades, he’s renowned as one of the world’s most accomplished and celebrated photographers. Mel is Huck 79’s artist-in-residence.
How did you get into photography and which photographers influenced you when you were starting?
I got into photography via music, specifically hip-hop. I would also say that my grandmother influenced me, something I did not fully realise until her recent death. What I have learned over the years is it’s perfectly okay NOT to have gained influence from those who do the same as you. Influences come from all over and it is up to you to decide how to process them.
Do you have different personalities for when you’re shooting different things. i.e. does a different Mel mindset turn up to shoot celebrities, compared to protests?
Good question, I have never been asked this before. The answer is yes — when shooting celebs during a photo shoot I get to show a side of me that exudes confidence but at the same time I have to allow the subject to fill the space with their ego and not so much of my own. When photographing protests, my agenda is to blend in, keep my head on a swivel and capture things as they happen vs making them happen.
How much did needing to document January 6th as an artist fight with the natural urge to just get out of there? How did you deal with the adrenalin?
I never thought that I needed to document it because I didn’t know it was going to happen. But once it did happen and I was in the middle of it all, I never really thought about leaving until it got dark and then I started to worry more than I was worrying before.
You see a lot of polarising points of view when you’re shooting on the street — what gives you hope?
What gives me hope is that we are not all evil and even those who we think are evil can heal and help the world through their stories.
How do you melt into the background in a volatile situation? People don’t like having their picture taken when they’re hyped up...
Just be. That’s the only way to explain it.
Can you tell us about your football projects (in the UK sense of the word) how did an American photographer get into shooting soccer/football?
I got into SOCCER by falling in love with playing FIFA on PlayStation. From there I started Charcoal Pitch F.C. — the first and only Black-owned soccer specific photo and video agency in the world that specialises in multicultural storytelling first. As of today I count The Premier League, Man City, Chelsea, NY Red Bulls, MLS and Pepsi as some of my clients. Right now I am working on post-production of the S3 E1 of Chelsea The Bridge. This is an online show my agency produces where we tell the stories of American Chelsea supporters.
What camera could you never do without?
What other art forms do you, or would you, like to explore? What is it about them that intrigues you?
I would love to make a few films one day, paint more and have my own radio show where I can play the music that I love. What intrigues me about making films, painting and doing radio is that they are all expressions of who and what I want to be known for once it’s all over for me.
When did you know photography was going to be your life?
When people would tell me that I was pretty good at it. It built confidence within me. I don’t like to quit things and I love a challenge. It comes from sports. I played football, aka American football, when I was a youngster.
We want our Artist-in-Residence to expand our readers’ minds...so here’s a comprehensive list of cultural things that have inspired Mel over his career and that he recommends you check out: