On Saturday, January 21, 2017, the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, millions around the world joined in solidarity as protesters held the first Women’s March on Washington, the largest single-day protest in U.S. history.
Mary Ellen “Mel” Rolleri marched, too. She joined the protest in New York City, snapping photographs along the way. She hadn’t done much street photography at that point and though she’d long appreciated the genre and had dabbled in it a bit, didn’t really know how to define it.
The Women’s March set her course. She recalls getting a perfect shot that day and how powerful the moment felt.
“We turned down a side street. Boom! There was this 92-year-old woman with purple hair holding a sign that said, ‘Dump Trump.’ Then she held up the power sign and I was like, ‘I can go home. That’s the picture of the f-ing decade.’ That’s still one of my favorite pictures and if I hadn’t gone down that street….”
Rolleri found capturing those kinds of decisive moments and the thrill of anticipating them exciting and irresistible. She also enjoyed recording the ever-changing and volatile world around her.
“I knew that’s what I wanted to do after that,” she said. “You’re documenting life as it is at that point. We wouldn’t know what life was like in the past without those photos. I think it’s really important to document that stuff.”
Since that January day, she’s photographed life on the streets of New York during these fraught political times, practically non-stop, from marches and parades to the iconic bustle of Grand Central Station and even Coney Island’s Mermaid Parade. Rolleri’s stunning black and white images shimmer with hope, resiliency and resistance.
“I’m not finding anything beautiful about America at this time,” she says, bluntly. “It’s killing me slowly is what it’s doing, but especially the marches and parades give me hope, more so than the everyday scenes. I think it is what’s making me a little more hopeful for the future of these United States – seeing people being themselves, being able to be themselves and loving everything about it. It’s very nice to see. To me, the marches and parades are the most beautiful things that have been happening in the past two-and-a-half years when everything is so disgusting, disgraceful and depressing.”
Vivian Maier, an unknown American photographer during her lifetime, is the first street photographer Rolleri was really interested in. Maier’s negatives and photographs were not discovered until after her death. Like Maier, Rolleri doesn’t seek out much attention for her work.
“I don’t know why. I’m just kind of doing this just for me,” she says.
Rolleri also appreciates the work of Minneapolis-based street photographer Valérie Jardin.
“Valérie is a big influence,” she says. “I got to meet her, become friends with her and watch her work. I’m not good at workshops – I can’t take photographs when I’m with other photographers. I have to be by myself, just doing what I want to do without thinking or worrying about others. But just to watch Valérie at work is pretty cool.”
Emotion in the shot
What makes a great photograph? A great image is an emotional image, Rolleri says. “It’s any kind of emotion or humor or anything that makes you feel something. Whether it’s a landscape or macro, it’s whatever makes you feel something when you look at the photo.”
In Mel Rolleri’s NYC, there’s no such thing as a bad day for photography. “There are so many photo ops,” she says. “You can’t pick a bad area in New York for pictures.”
Though she has no big personal projects planned, she says she’ll continue to quietly document the city she loves, energized by people agitating for a better tomorrow.
Rolleri pauses, recalling an especially hopeful aspect of the 2019 NYC Pride Parade:
“We didn’t see any Trump supporters this year.”