Michelle Grace Hunder on how she energizes music photography and helps up-and-coming photographers up their name, game, and skills.
Michelle Grace Hunder has spent the past decade building a rich career in music photography. She captures compelling live photos and portraits of musicians like Ruel, Lauryn Hill, Greta Ray, Nas, Kehlani, Post Malone, and countless others. In 2018, this branched into her critically acclaimed Her Sound Her Story, a four-year multimedia project focusing on women in Australian music.
Hunder’s work stands out in an otherwise saturated genre through her attention to the psychological force behind light and color, which she uses to communicate energy and empathy.
Her success inspires her to mentor other emerging photographers through her highly trafficked workshops which she live streams three times a week on Twitch.
We catch up and speak about her career, how she’s pivoted from live music in the wake of social distancing, and what keeps her going.
The Luupe: How did you first get into photographing musicians?
Michelle Grace Hunder: I kind of fell into it and started following friends who were musicians. It clicked pretty quickly – I get along with musicians really well. I was originally shooting in the hip hop community. I understand the culture and the visual aesthetic and no one was really documenting hip hop in the same way at that time. It was a perfect combo of a few things happening at the right time!
The Luupe: Your portraits are incredibly empathetic – we can feel a deep connection. How does your process help build that connection?
Hunder: Thank you, that is honestly the highest compliment for me. It’s the thing I really strive for with my work – to connect with my subjects. It’s hard to articulate really, people say they feel really comfortable around me, so I guess it’s a personality thing, but I also like to set the mood. I always chat with the person I am shooting for a while, share a cup of tea. Always put music on that they’re really feeling. I genuinely love getting to know and meeting new people so I think that helps!
The Luupe: Who are some of your biggest influences?
Hunder: I’d say the biggest influence on my work is Jonathan Mannion, he is an iconic Hip Hop photographer and I’ve always been really inspired by this work. I love timeless, iconic imagery. I also adore Janette Beckman, Mike Miller, Estivan Oriol. All of the iconic hip hop photographers were really a huge influence and inspiration.
The Luupe: What were some of your biggest challenges early in your career?
Hunder: I think the biggest challenge is getting established and consistent work when you are freelancing. It can be a real grind, but I actually really relish in the hustle I think. I love that when you work for yourself you only have yourself to blame for things not working, so that’s super motivating for me to push myself. I’m a super high achiever and never feel like I have the ability to relax or get complacent. There is almost more to achieve.
The Luupe: Did you have any mentors, anyone going to bat for you, helping to get your name up early on?
Hunder: YES! So many people to be honest. I had two photographers that were amazing mentors to me at the start. Photographers that I had worked with previously as a model, who both encouraged me a lot and helped me with the more business side of photography which can be really overwhelming.
My best friend is also a hobby photographer and he really encouraged me and used to come on shoots at the start and help me with lighting and stuff when I had NO idea what I was doing. And a few artists that saw talent in me. Seth Sentry who is an Australian rapper took me on my first tour. And Pharoahe Monch, and New York MC, worked with me and it got me a lot of attention, so that was really cool.
The Luupe: WIth live music being such a big part of your work, we can imagine you’ve had to rethink a lot with the pandemic.
Hunder: “Impact” would be an understatement – I basically had an entire back end of year canceled or postponed in one day. I haven’t been able to shoot since June, and even then it was a short 6 week period since our previous lockdown. So my life has completely turned upside down. I have not been able to shoot at any near-normal capacity since March, except for a short 6-week period in June and July So have had to adapt.
I started live streaming on Twitch, a platform that was known in the past for gaming, but is now a really incredible world of music, art, and creative streamers! So I started streaming workshops, interviews with industry professionals, and creative challenges for my viewers. I have met the most AMAZING people all around the world and it’s given me an opportunity to connect with creatives I would never have met if COVID never happened. I’m looking at it as a positive even though it’s really meant I can’t do the things I really love.
The Luupe: We were awed by your success on Twitch, given its main/ initial adoption by gamers. Really cool to see how you’ve redefined it. Speaking of success, congrats on the acclaim for Her Sound Story.
Hunder: Thank you!! That was a really huge project.
The Luupe: How and why did it come about?
Hunder: It started out of noticing a huge gender disparity in the music industry and wanted to understand why. There was a lot of conversation about the stats, but not WHY or what to do about it. I originally set up to highlight female artists through my portrait work, but I decided it was a bigger conversation and set out to make a documentary with my filmmaker friend, Claudia Sangiorgi Dallimore. It was a 4-year-in-the-making project. We spoke to over 50 women and made 88 portraits in the series.
The Luupe: What outcomes, responses, etc have you seen so far?
Hunder: The response was overwhelmingly positive. We had an amazing industry response, we were on a lot of panels discussing moving forward and trying to tackle the issue at many levels. I feel like things are changed, but you know, like any social change it can seem slow. It is happening though!
The Luupe: What was the biggest inspiration to get active on Twitch?
Hunder: Mainly not having anything to do and being stuck indoors with a pretty intense lockdown. Also, I saw an opportunity to get on the platform as a photographer early, while it’s in a growth period, which I think is really beneficial!
The Luupe: What are you seeing on Twitch that you haven’t seen before? How do you feel about it as an outlet for new photography?
Hunder: It’s basally like live learning. Imagine you’re listening to a podcast or a YouTube tutorial but you can ask questions and you can be responded to in live time. It’s really really amazing when you get your head around it, and the community is just awesome. I can’t speak highly enough of it.
The Luupe: Do leading workshops and interviews change how you think about your own work?
Hunder: I think mostly it’s given me an appreciation for how lucky I am to do something I’m truly passionate about. And I never get sick of talking to people about our industry and pathways to making it a career!! I truly love being a photographer and all the experiences I’ve had and people I have met. The other aspect is really stepping up the mentoring stuff I have been doing over the past few years. I feel like I can reach more people this way. It’s been so fulfilling to connect with so many amazing people and help them achieve their goals. It’s really been life-changing!