Celebrating difference

Melania Sinibaldi is a photographer with a different perspective on photography and the world around us. Her vision of the things she photographs is all about connection and communicating the feelings they evoke.

Photographers take photographs for many reasons. For some it is more about the camera than the images. For others it’s about following the ‘rules’, sticking rigidly to what they’ve read or been shown on composition and framing etc. It’s a world of f-stops and the latest lens or over-priced camera with functions we’ll never use.

However, there’s another breed of photographers who come at their craft from a completely different direction and often in a much less structured way. For these photographers it’s all about feeling, an emotional response to what they see, with the camera becoming little more than a tool to capture what they sense, experience and want to share with others. 

It’s logical if you think about it. What makes us engage with a photograph? What holds our attention and makes us come back again and again for another look? Of course, framing and composition are part of this process but there is much more to it than that, and something which all too often gets overlooked. The right images doesn’t have to be technically perfect to have an impact. So who are this breed of photographers?

Photography & connecting with nature

Here we get into generalisations, but a generalisation born out of experience and observation. Whilst some photographers have a sometimes unhealthy investment in the technology and technical side of photography, and can also be highly competitive both with themselves and with others, there are also photographers – often female ones – who have less connection to the equipment but a much more intuitive connection with what they’re photographing. This observation poses the question: is this a gender difference or is that too simplistic? Is it purely that men and women see the world differently or are the lines much more blurred? And does it really matter, because there’s nothing inherently wrong with either approach, or anything in between?

Beyond documentary – capturing a subject in a different way requires the photographer to connect with their subject and translate it into an image with feeling and originality. Left – Glacier Valcamonica, Lombardia; Right – Chamois, Gran Paradiso, Valle d’Aosta

For those who take a more sensitive approach to their photography, it’s not just about beauty; it can be excitement, fear, joy, happiness, melancholy and a myriad of other emotions. It is an empathetic connection. It’s no great secret that women are more empathetic by nature. It is a generalisation once again of course, as there are many women who are technically focused and very good at that, while some men who much more interested in the emotional response to a subject or an image. Without wishing to use often over-used cliches, it’s a journey which starts without a camera, and this is simply a different way of looking at the world. 

Finding feeling

Regardless of gender, this is a personal journey which can bring many failures along the way, especially when the camera doesn’t fully capture the connection as it was visualised. Sometimes other people don’t quite ‘get it’, dismissing that photographer too. But it’s also about personal growth and fulfilment, and as with all photography, the more you practice, the better you get. Any lack of equipment-based technique can be easily learned when needed and often people can’t afford a kit bag full of gear, or the range of lenses to capture every image optimally, so their photography has to adapt to what they have or can afford. This isn’t solely or exclusively the domain of female photographers, of course, but it will resonate with many.

Textures in the landscape fascinate Melania Sinibaldi

One such photographer is Melania Sinibaldi. She’s a fiery, enigmatic Italian with a passion for nature and, in particular, a yearning for the mountains. In nature and at altitude, she is in her element. She is alive then and invincible when she is.

Big world, small world – what brings the two together? What do they have in common? Left – Butterfly in the garden; Centre – Alte Vie Valcmonica Glacier; Right – Valtelina

Melania’s photography is diverse. It can be broadly categorised as ‘the big and the small’. She most enjoys capturing vast and majestic mountain landscapes, with the textures and shapes amongst them, but also nature’s smallest details with her macro photography.

Taking this alternative but highly creative approach to photography can be tough and frustrating though. For the photographer it can be hard to translate what they feel into the image they sense and pre-visualise, and having to fight for this approach and these convictions are often misunderstood or dismissed by those with more conformist approaches. That can be demoralising and a distraction from the creative process, especially when they’re made to feel like a freak because their approach to photography is freer and less constrained or conventional, but it can also spark determination to do what they believe in. 

Historically photography has often been perceived as a male dominated craft, but this is perhaps unfair with the differences being more subtle. A look through history and in a more contemporary way – in particular now on social media – reveals a wealth of talented and visionary female exponents of the craft. Many of them bring a different, sometimes less formulaic vision and perspective with their imagery. This is refreshing, but also important for the health of photography per se.

Photographing ‘big’ landscape is hard. What and how much do you include in the frame? With this type of photography it is a balance between the whole scene and the element or elements which inspire the photographer to create an image. Not every subject fits with the shape of the frame or sensor, or the viewpoint or lens don’t allow the required framing, so often it’s worth experimenting with crops to refine the image and give the many elements more emphasis. All images – Valtelina

In Italy, nature photography is perceived as a male domain, although in reality it isn’t. It’s a shame, though, and a perception which needs to be challenged because there are many talented female photographer photographing nature. It’s certainly true that many of those male photographers and their photography would benefit from embracing the female visions amongst them. Undetered, Melania takes her ideas beyond her own photography. She is member of AFNI – Associazione Fotografi Naturalisti Italiani (Association of Italian Nature Photographers) – and has been elected as coordinator for the Lombardia region and as a National Councillor. Roles which she is also passionate about.

Coming together through Sensore Donna

It’s very revealing when you ask a photographer about their images. Typically many will start by telling you about the setting which they used, or the camera and lens. Ask Melania, and she’ll tell you what she felt when she looked at whatever she was about to photograph, before she’s even raised the camera to her eye.

Melania is never more alive than when in the mountains or immersed in nature. Left – In Terminillo Mountains; Right – On Giglio Island

What many female photographers do have in common, though, is a lack of confidence in their photography. To counter this, last year Melania started a group of female photographers within AFNI to share ideas, pictures and advice, and to help and support each other. The common elements which brings these photographers together is a love of nature. The group call themselves “Sensore Donna”. This name is both descriptive and a clever play on words . With the number of members increasing, just like in similar all female photographers communities in other countries, it shows the need for an uncompetitive environment to meet, whether virtual or in person, and feel safe with others who understand different ways of viewing and capturing the world around them. The next step is an exhibition and Melania is currently organising this for Asferico later this year.

For Melania and her female colleagues, this group is refreshing, non-judgemental and a safe environment to exchange ideas. It’s focused more on creativity than camera gear. Although there are many highly technically competent members who favour the more technical, talk is often more about the images themselves and the creativity of the members flourishes in this positive environment. When asked what this group means to her and her colleagues, Melania said “We exist and are growing rapidly. We are many, strong together and very sensitive, supporting each other. Our aim is to show that we are producing good and interesting work in the nature photography space, often starting with a different perspective.  We try to be at one with the nature we love, or at least a part of it – Mother Nature is female after all. We are inclusive and growing within AFNI. As we showcase our photography, the high quality will bring people to a place where the gender of the photographer is irrelevant and goes unquestioned”. To that end, in July 2024, ‘Sensore Donna’ will stage their first exhibition of the work of its members.

Room for difference?

So how could a different approach impact your own photography. Once you suspend the rule of thirds, and all the other so-called ‘rules’ and guidelines – which are extremely helpful when learning photography but can also hold your creativity back as you get better – your perspective changes. Instead, turning your attention to understanding the impact of what you’re photographing on you, and how you translate that ‘feeling’ into an image which other people will connect with, image creation becomes a whole different skill. It turns your photography on its head, subverting technique for another day, or at least until it is the element which completes an image. 

Macro photography enables Melania to discover and explore the small world, with all its colours and texture, which are visible without the lens.

For too many photographers, the camera craft comes first and the glass ceiling is translating that in creativity. For photographers like Melania, she is so bursting with the impact of what she’s observing on her that technique is not the first consideration, until the point where the technical weakness holds back the creativity, and then it kicks in. Her approach harnesses innate creativity, observation and sensitivity. These then all grow and blossom with time and experiences.

At this point, there will be a significant percentage of the people reading who think this is a load of nonsense, but before you dismiss it, take a moment. Next time you see something you want to photograph, don’t ask yourself what lens and settings you should use, or even what you see. Ask yourself what you feel, what it makes you feel. Then work out how you capture those feelings in your image. It’s actually hard to do, much harder than you probably realise, but once you start to bring this passion into your images they will not only become less clinical, but also more engaging – the difference between ‘that’s a nice picture’ and ‘wow!’.

In this process you will quickly discover that the techniques which you may have under your belt, whilst important are not the whole answer to creating great images. They can then be used in combination to enhance mood and impact even more, but again they remain as tools rather than the first consideration when you put the camera to your eye. Once you explore this approach, your photography will grow in sensitivity and become more expressive. You will find a new respect for those photographers, many of them happen to be women though not exclusively so, and hopefully come to the realisation that you should be less hasty to dismiss those who see with an eye which engages the subject first and the sensitivity to express their feelings through their photography, as more important than the camera gear. 

Different approaches to creating photographs are essential to keeping photography alive and vital. In a world where so many pictures are taken, most of which are transient or throw-away snaps, there is room for everyone to follow their vision, their own ways of being creative. Melania is just one example of a growing freedom to approach photography differently. Photography is first and foremost a creative process. It’s not formulaic or driven by rigid or prescriptive rules. So take time to explore and celebrate our differences. It may just turn out to be a light bulb moment for your own photography.

Instagram: Melania Sinibaldi

Useful links: Find out more about AFNI; Find out more about Asferico


By Chris Coe

Chris is a professional photographer, and the founder of Travel Photographer of the Year. He has been working as a professional photographer since 1992, shooting both editorial and advertising photography, and has published over 50 books. He lectures on and teaches photography, mentors and is a competition judge.