Melissa Ojeda ’15 received her BFA in Photography and Digital Arts with a Minor in Business. Originally from Miami and now based in Philadelphia, she is the founder of Miami Reps, a branding and marketing agency for photographers, where she is also a creative coach. Ojeda is in conversation with Photography Department Head James Johnson.
This conversation has been edited for length.
James Johnson: What have you been doing since your time at Moore?
Melissa Ojeda: I founded Miami Reps, which is a branding and marketing agency for commercial photographers. Not only do I help photographers market themselves to their target clients—whether it's publications or agencies or brands, from large or smaller scale—I also am a creative coach. I help photographers develop a commercial portfolio and create self-assigned projects. I've worked with photographers from all walks of life with different ranges of experience from just graduating college to more than 10 years. And what I’ve learned is that as photographers grow, your interests can change and then your target audience or clients can change. So I’ve been helping photographers develop a portfolio that appeals to their target clients.
JJ: I do Open Houses all the time and I talk to prospective students and their parents about the super valid question of “what can I do with this degree after I get out of here, so I can repay my student loans?” And sure, there are people who go out there and get jobs with a company as a photographer or a video editor or something like that. But there are also just as many if not more people who have these sort of photography-adjacent careers, like you! We have so many examples of people who aren't the actual content creators, but they're integral to this system of creating and distributing images throughout the world. I feel like an internship is a really good example of when people discover things that they either love or don't love doing. Like half the people who go on their internships are like, “Oh my god, I did this thing that validated my suspicions that I wanted to do this!” But the other half of the people are like, “Oh, my God, I know now that I do not want to do that thing that I thought I wanted to do for all of my high school career!” [laughter] So I think you are a really amazing success story.
MO: Thank you. And you brought up such a good point, too. I feel like as a student, you come into college and there's a major and you think of one thing you can do with it, specifically with photography you think well I'm going to be a photographer, or maybe a creative director or art director. But I think it's so great that you have all of these relationships with creatives around the city who have photography-adjacent jobs, because the field really is changing as the world changes. My internship was photography, I did product photography for a local jewelry company, and then realized that yeah, I could be a photographer, but is it something that I truly love doing? And I feel like you really find out once you talk to people and really start to figure out what careers are actually out there.
JJ: Totally. So related to that, when you were leaving Moore did you think you would end up where you are now?
MO: I really didn’t know what I was going to do after college. But one of the things that I did learn at Moore—especially since I was so involved on campus with things like student government, and I always did those spring break volunteer opportunities—is I took every opportunity I could to network with people. And so I actually ended up working with Victoria Tolley ’15, my former classmate, for two years at a local photography production company right out of college. That really sparked my career because the skills we learned at the agency together is very similar to what I'm doing right now in my own personal career as a Creative Coach.
JJ: How did your time at Moore prepare or equip you for the future of your chosen field?
MO: I think one of the biggest things is the critiques. It really taught me how to provide comments and feedback without any judgment. What I learned in this field is that everyone has a particular style, whether you like it or not, and it's about trying to figure out how to improve their portfolio to meet their photographic style. So I've even learned that it's important as a creative to take critique, both in the art and design experience in school and in the real world as well. I think being able to understand how to give and receive critiques is important.
JJ: Can you think of an experience at Moore that directly contributed to the path you're on now?
MO: One of the things that I really loved about Moore was the fact that not only did we get to dive into photography, and all of like the basics with lighting and studio work, but we also learned about animation, exploring sound as a medium and even got the chance to work 3D printers. It all really taught me so much about the advancement of the industry, and that there were so many different avenues that you could take as a photographer, or as a digital artist. The digital art part I felt like was so important, especially now with the Metaverse and the virtual realm opening up new job opportunities for the creative field.
JJ: What are your hopes for the future of Moore as an art and design institution?
MO: I think that Moore does a really good job of preparing students on how to get a career after graduating, with resumes and learning how to do interviews, preparing a website, business cards, things like that. But one of the things that I feel like I'm always getting comments on is how creatives don't learn anything about how to market themselves in the real world. It's important to know how to talk about your brand and what a brand entails. Like, it's not just a website and a logo and business cards. It's also the kind of environment that you give people when they're in your space, or even what you're wearing is also tied to your personal brand. I think it'll really help creatives on all levels and in every major, and it's also different per major as well. How do you market yourself on social media? How do you reach a specific audience? Personal branding is a subject that could really elevate the career side of the programs.
JJ: It's interesting you say that because as a direct response to student feedback, which were many of the things that you just said, we jump-started this lecture series in the department to bring in artists to talk to students about like, what it means to be an artist as well as practical skills. We've heard students for a long time, saying, like, it's great to learn how to take pictures and talk about pictures and edit photos and stuff like that, but we really want to know how to get the word out once we're out there and cultivate new work. So we're really actively trying to respond to that kind of feedback.
MO: That's amazing. I love that you're doing that and you're making changes to some of the curriculum and bringing actual creatives that are working in the field to be able to talk to the students. I think it's so important because you know the industry is changing day by day.
JJ: What is one major aspect of Moore's history or legacy that you feel you feel will continue to endure and feel relevant in the future?
MO: I think one of the things that makes Moore so special is its ability to be so progressive, and a safe place for young creatives. I just think it's so great that Moore has created this reputation for women and nonbinary and trans individuals, giving them opportunities to be in these fields where they are underrepresented. I think it's so wonderful. I always talk about Moore in my professional life, because it's so progressive and just celebrates individuality and I really don't know of any other place that's like that. And then another thing, too, is that Moore is constantly evaluating the successful industries in the creative field, so I love that it's opening up new avenues for the students. I mean, I saw that there's now a gaming program and a film program, and I think that a lot of these fields can be male dominant, so giving women an opportunity to learn and go out there and already have the skills necessary to get a career in these fields is wonderful.
JJ: What is something you've been working on that you're really excited about?
MO: My really good friend who was my mentor, and someone that I had interned with as a junior at Moore, her name is Toni Leslie, she's pretty much a branding and marketing extraordinaire, and also a graphic designer. Her and I last year had this moment where we both wanted to be more fulfilled creatively. In my career, as a creative coach, I'm helping other people be creative, but I also wanted my own creative platform. So we are working on an event design and planning business here in Philadelphia, so far we've been mostly working with the beauty industry. So we've been able to work with large brands like Soap and Glory and No7, and we've been doing a lot of influencer events, which are very creative, with lots of three-dimensional elements. With my photography background, what has been so helpful with our partnership is that I bring a new perspective, I'm always focusing on how lighting looks in the space or sound or even scent, I’m really trying to dig deep into the five senses so that it does create a really unique experience for the guests. And she mainly focuses on the creative direction, so it's been really great that we've been able to collaborate in that way. And that to me has been like a fun medium to explore photography in a more three-dimensional way.
JJ: What is your biggest piece of advice for future Moore students?
MO: My biggest piece of advice is to network. Your professors, the Career Center, even your peers, your classmates, they're all going to be valuable resources in the future. So I think it's important to really take the opportunity to meet as many people as you can, stay connected with the people as you can, because when you graduate, you never know if you're gonna end up working with those people or needing to use them as a resource for a potential opportunity.
JJ: The major has been running for 17 years now. So we have enough alums out there in the world, where people from different generations will apply for a job, and then get hired by somebody who went through our major like 17 years ago or something like that. And they don't know each other, but they know the vibe of PDA or Photography at Moore. So they hire these people because they know they have a really diverse skill set, and they work really hard, and they make amazing work, and they're good critics and all this amazing stuff. It's interesting to see this whole kind of legacy building. That's one aspect that I didn't anticipate when I started at Moore, that we'd have all these amazing people out there doing all this amazing stuff and working together and like helping each other get jobs and learning about the field and supporting each other.
MO: I'm always on LinkedIn doing research for my photographers, and I’ll go to a specific brand’s or agency’s page, and it'll say “one person from Moore works here" [laughter] I’m like “wow, it’s so amazing that they're at this company.” And I think it's definitely a community that always stays connected, even if we're not even thinking about it, it's such a great community, and I'm so happy that I got to be a part of it. I feel like it really changed who I was as a person and helped me develop myself as a professional.