Small Business Stories: Melissa

In this series of interviews, we explore stories from immigrant/BIPOC*/women business owners who have adapted during the pandemic. The purpose is to learn and connect through shared experience. In this interview, Jo Anderson Cavinta (Diversity Services Coordinator for KCLS) spoke with Melissa, a freelance photographer. 

*BIPOC means "Black, Indigenous, and People of Color."

Meet Melissa, Freelance Photographer

Melissa is a parent of four grown kids, living in Des Moines since 1991. “I am the second of three daughters to my late father, a career army veteran, and Korean mother. We’re from one of the early waves of Korean honhyeol, a Korean word formerly used to negatively refer to ‘GI Babies,' meaning mixed race. Also a self-described “army brat,” Melissa grew up on various bases in the U.S. and Germany, ultimately settling in the Pacific Northwest.

“Photography and film had been a hobby I picked up from my older sister for over twenty years.” In 2006, she was invited by a family friend to photograph a wedding. “I figured ‘shoots, I’m gonna’ be there anyways.’” After purchasing her first digital camera to back up her 35mm and checking out wedding photography books from the library, the rest is history. 

Melissa’s background is in public education and community health. Her focus on equity and social justice transferred to her career as a freelance photographer. “I wanted to become good enough to provide professional-quality photography services to folks who normally wouldn’t hire a professional photographer - not a sustainable business practice," she says with a laugh. Her clientele still includes families and individuals, but has grown to several nonprofits, organizations whose missions align with her values.

Then COVID-19 hit.

“I lost work and income due to event and portrait session cancellations.” Several fundraisers, such as nonprofit galas, 5k walks/runs, as well as conferences and workshops came to a halt with social distancing orders. Her clients were now quarantining and working from home and either canceled or postponed.

On the home front, “my landlady was especially generous the first two months (and since) in regards to rent relief.” Also, many of her clients paid her cancellation fees. United Territories of Pacific Islanders Alliance Seattle (UTOPIA), a Kent-based Queer and Trans Pacific Islander (QTPI) nonprofit, actively engaged in COVID response efforts early on. Melissa was a recipient of this effort. During this time, she found a reason to get out of the house. Masked up, she began taking portraits of essential workers - healthcare providers, mask-makers, those delivering food to homebound elders, etc.

A turning point.

Gigs started coming in from long-term clients, and a couple new ones. “Some hired me for socially distanced portrait sessions, especially for high school and college seniors.” Highline Public Schools, a client for ten years, sent her out to do a “Highline at Home'' campaign and unconventional drive-through graduation ceremonies. She documented several of HealthPoint’s COVID-testing sites. Melissa also could be found documenting UTOPIA’s weekly curbside food distribution and Census 2020 efforts.

The road ahead.

“With proper gear, it is easy to stay a safe distance.” Melissa explains to existing and potential clients about the safety of taking business portraits and stock photography, for example. Also, for clients in business, it is a good time to create COVID-related images for employee safe or contactless practices, or “client visual stock.” 

Melissa continues to use an equity and social justice lens, such as promoting other small businesses on social media, especially BIPOC and women-owned. She’s participated in photography and artist association webinars and meetings discussing COVID response efforts. “As a sole proprietor without a storefront or employees and not an artist in the traditional sense, it’s difficult to find support.” For this reason, it’s important for her to share information with others.

Melissa’s Business Tip: Be diligent in communicating and implementing cancellation agreements in contracts with new and existing clients. Build and maintain relationships. Utilize social media to interact, engage and remind folks what you do, where you are, and that you are doing it.

Business owners and individuals can get library assistance finding business or personal grants, loans, and other resources by filling out the Find Financial Assistance form.

Support your local small business community! For more financial and small business resources, visit Invest in Yourself 

The Welcoming Center for immigrants, refugees and new arrivals connects you to the people and resources in the area you live.