By Nina Huang
Northwest Asian Weekly
Melissa Ponder has led a career dedicated to promoting equity and eliminating disparities—first in the education and nonprofit fields, and now through her photography.
Ponder is a Korean American army brat. She was born near her father’s hometown in southern Missouri and moved around with her family growing up. Her mother was one of the first Korean wives of the U.S. GIs. Their family had lived in air bases in Missouri, South Korea, and Germany.
Given her unique childhood and experiencing inclusivity and cross-cultural communications, she’s able to see things through an equity lens.
Ponder used to work in education, including conducting equity diversity training. She has also worked for International Community Health Services in program management, serving diverse populations to reduce diabetes disparities.
She made the pivot from the education and nonprofit sector to pursuing her hobby of photography. Ponder has been a professional photographer since 2007. It started off by carrying her camera and personally documenting sights wherever she went and taking photos of mostly people.
Her first gig was to shoot a family friend’s wedding.
“It was a gift to them because I didn’t know anything about wedding photography,” she said.
Ponder did her homework. She went to the library and learned about wedding photography. She didn’t realize “getting ready photos” were a thing and she’s not much of an ambiance person, but ultimately she ended up really enjoying the 10-hour day.
“I liked the challenge of it and it was stressful, but it wasn’t boring. That was my first professional gig that really pushed me in that direction to pursue photography,” she explained.
Ponder said that she originally wanted to become good enough of a photographer to help community members who would never hire a professional because of costs.
Photography has allowed Ponder to be involved in the community. Most of Ponder’s clients are nonprofits, including Health Point, High Public Schools, UTOPIA Washington, Native Action Network, and several others.
Her photography services range from event photos and headshots to images used for marketing materials.
“Mostly what I do is provide the imagery for folks to tell their stories,” she said.
As a Comcast RISE grant recipient, Ponder hopes to establish her photography business as an LLC, as well as join the Minority Women’s Business Enterprise so that she can expand and increase visibility and awareness in the broader community.
She would also like to expand her team to hire additional support to stay in business, as well as update her website.
“I really like what I do and who I work with, because I get to work with so many communities that I’ve served and advocated for. I’m not restricted because I’m independent, if I can keep doing this, then I want to, and still maintain previous relationships,” she explained.
“Whether it’s through my training, or I naturally see things that folks who hire me don’t necessarily see around equity, because a lot of people that I work with aren’t familiar with our communities, I’m sensitive about producing work that may become poverty porn for certain clients,” she said.
Through her independent work, Ponder can also educate her clients about inclusion and diversity in photography. She has been able to provide recommendations and a perspective on capturing more photos of people of color, for example, which might not be something that one would notice. Ponder hopes that through her photography, she can help clients be more community-minded and comfortable engaging with various communities.
When Ponder isn’t busy taking photos for the community, she enjoys spending time and playing with her eight-month-old grandson.
Nina can be reached at [email protected]