MELISSA SCHWARTZ is a prolific photographer. “I shoot A LOT,” she says. “In my opinion, that is the best way to get a really special shot. Most amazing shots are not planned, they are a moment that happens when the model forgets they are modeling.” Well, we definitely wound up with that “amazing shot” on the cover of Laika’s Premier Issue. Assisted by her right-hand man and fellow photographer Donovan Jenkins, Melissa captured a compelling portrait of 19-year-old college student Brandilyn Tebo. All three are Los Angeles-based vegans, who are active in the animal rights community. Melissa and Donovan produce the vGirls|vGuys multi-media project, and Brandilyn runs Veg Club at Occidental College, where she just declared herself as a Biology major. Here, they take us through the day of the cover shoot, and share their thoughts on a variety of topics…
Melissa, tell us about your technique.
I use a Nikon D3 camera, but I think technology is so good these days, one can get great shots with many kinds of cameras… A great shot is all about lighting and knowing your camera well enough to change things quickly. I use Alien Bees lights which are super affordable and portable. I like shooting in the studio for certain kinds of things, but I also like shooting on location. It really comes down to what the client wants.
And your working relationship with Donovan?
We work very well together. We consult with each other on set-ups. We have been good friends for years and years, and actually went vegan together when we met. He is working on his own portfolio now so I will be assisting for him in the future also.
Donovan, what led you to photography?
I grew up in a small town in Montana. After high school I joined the Army to be an infantry paratrooper and served two tours in Iraq. When I returned home to Montana in 2005, I was depressed and suffering from PTSD, so I started studying philosophy (ethics) and running a lot because I found those things helped me understand and deal with a lot of my troubling experiences from the war. Several months later I met Melissa and decided to move to Los Angeles. She is the one who introduced me to veganism, helped me give up all animal products, and she let me work with her in her photography studio as I finished going to school at UCLA. Eventually, after failing to find a job with my philosophy degree, I realized that I was much happier working as a photographer anyway. So, now I’m assisting Melissa with her work at Schwartzstudios, working with her on the vGirls|vGuys project, and working on my own photography business.
You guys shot at two different locations for the Laika cover shoot—both of them beautiful.
Melissa: Scouting is really important because you can’t just rely on a scene to look good without understanding how it looks at a certain time of day. We found two we liked before the shoot and we returned to both of them. However, the second location kind of caught us off guard. We had found what we thought was an abandoned truck to shoot with, but when we got there with Brandilyn it was gone! So we had to make do. But it was lucky that the other location we had already shot at was perfect. There was a little fog in the morning that diffused the light and made the location even better than the first time we saw it.
Donovan: Probably some of the most inspiring things for me are the experiences I have while out running in the mountains or riding my bike through the city. I found one of the locations for the Laika cover shoot one morning when I was out on a run.
Tell us about the day of the shoot.
Melissa: We started really early, about 5:30 or 6am and I think we ended close to 3pm. I definitely feel like we had a fun experience and all got to know each other better. I am really glad I got to meet Brandilyn, she is independently organizing a number of important endeavors for the movement.
Brandilyn: I think a lot of vegans tend to have that commonality and sense of community with one another- it has been a platform for many of my most wonderful friendships. We even went out to eat at a vegan restaurant after the shoot. It was connected to a grocery store called “Follow Your Heart.” It was around Halloween so we all shared cinnamon pumpkin pancakes and we’ve seen each other since the shoot at other vegan outings! They are way awesome people.
Brandilyn, what does your family think of your modeling career?
My mom was a model, so she has very mixed emotions about it. She knows what a great opportunity it could be for me, but she also knows that the industry is grueling and often terrible for self-esteem. None of my family wants me to be seen treated as a commodity or objectified in any way-they want me to retain my identity! Which is why it is awesome when I get to do things like this shoot, which support causes in which I believe. But I am a full time student with dreams far beyond the modeling world and no matter what, those come first.
Donovan, with you being athletic, are people ever surprised to learn you’re vegan?
Less so today than they were several years ago. There are so many world class athletes promoting veganism now. Just last month I ran the Chimera 100-mile trail race in Southern California, and the race organizers provided both vegan and non-vegan food at all the aid stations along the course. It was awesome to see so many people choosing to eat the vegan meals at the race.
Athletes put more stress on their bodies and generally require more protein than the average person to stay healthy and strong. If you can’t get adequate protein from plants, I don’t know how there are so many vegans competing at the highest level in almost every sport. I don’t know how I could have the strength to run ultramarathons and lift weights. I rarely use protein supplements, but the other day I was reading through the reviews for Vega protein powder online and thought it was a great testament to plant proteins when athletes who identified themselves as meat eaters claimed over and over again that plant based proteins were better quality and gave them better results than any whey or other non-vegan protein. You don’t need meat!
Melissa, why are you an animal rights activist?
Because I can’t not be. I live in a world that is beyond unfair to animals. There is so much pain and suffering that humans are responsible for, and so many of us are unwittingly supporting animal abuse because we don’t even realize how our choices effect the animals. So now that I understand the situation I feel like I have no choice but to try to tell other people what I have learned.
Do you feel optimistic about a better future for the animals?
I absolutely do, and I think we will see it happen in our lifetimes. Though I think the ethical reasons are all that we should need, it will probably not happen out of purely ethical reasons; I am sure environmental, health and economic reasons will play a huge role in this change. Humanity cannot afford not to change. Period.
Learn more about Melissa Schwartz’s photography and activism at :
…and read more about Brandilyn Tebo on page 62 of the Premier Issue.
Photo of Melissa and Donovan courtesy of Tony Radakovich
Photo of Brandilyn Tebo courtesy of Melissa Schwartz