About Melissa Dunstan
I grew up in the South in a small town in Georgia, just south of Chattanooga, TN. I am the youngest of three kids and was also very close to my uncles. I grew up thinking all of them were super heroes. Also, I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time with my maternal grandparents, who were rocks in my life until they passed away in 1982 and 1996.
I grew up, always, with many pets and adored them all. I was very sensitive and loved to talk to them. I swore they understood everything I said, which I continue to believe until today. However, my childhood wasn’t all rosy. When I was in 9th grade, my mother passed away from melanoma. It was one year from diagnosis to death. She was only 48. That experience forever changed me. My father did the best he could, armed with the knowledge he had at the time.
After mom transitioned, I wasn’t allowed to go to counseling and was told not to cry. And, while that sounds terrible, it was more innocent. It wasn’t like I asked for counseling and he said “NO“, it was more when I started to cry, he would come and tell me softly, “Baby, your mom would be so sad if she thought you were crying, try and remember the best moments, and not this…“. So, I never pressed for help, I didn’t want Dad to think I was sad, because it was important to him that I try and not wallow in my grief. I remember barely being able to breathe when the grief consumed me. For a sensitive child, this burial of pain was almost unbearable. I struggled with major depression through college and a decade after and didn’t pinpoint the major cause of this sadness until I had a breakdown when I was in my thirties. Grieving her death was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Years of repressed grief had boiled up and it was only through meeting the right health care providers, an angelic dog, and I’m sure countless angels by my side guiding me in the right direction, I found the right care at the right time. I have been to the edge and survived. Because of this, I’ve been an advocate of many mental health and grieving organizations.
After graduating from the University of Georgia, I moved to Arizona. (more on that below) After six years in Bullhead City, AZ, I then moved to Flagstaff. I didn’t have a job but had a U-Haul full of my things and my beloved pets. (Don’t worry, they rode in the front with me ) After arriving, I met a friend for lunch. While standing in line at the Black Bean (a now gone burrito favorite in Flagstaff), a man overheard my story and offered me a job on the spot. It seems the orthopedic clinic had been looking for someone just like me, with my exact experience for two months. I’ve always been a firm believer in fate.
I met my husband, Grant, through my love of cycling. We met, randomly, because we had answered a request to have a Trips for Kids chapter here in Flagstaff. His compassion and sweetness quickly won me over and we were married in a beautiful meadow at the foot of the San Francisco Peaks in 2007. We tried to have children, but the same fateful universe that got me a job and got me to meet my husband decided it was not in our life plan. It was a hard reality to face, but in time, I healed. Grant is my rock and can always bring me back to center when I get sad or feeling lost. I’m sure living with a sensitive person like me isn’t always easy but he makes it seem that way. We love to travel together, hike and enjoy the small moments we both know always add up to the important things in life. Grant works for New Belgium Brewing Company and is also a talented running coach. Check out his website!
We share our home with our dog and cat who are all my heart. If you ever want to meet them, head over to my personal Instagram account. Or better yet, check their Instagram accounts. Yes, I’m that person who has Instagram accounts for their pets. But seriously, the only way I can even handle social media is because of pet accounts.
Other things that bring me joy are birdwatching, driving my Dad’s vintage 1977 MGB (when it’s not broken down of course), corny jokes, conspiracy theory discussions with my brother, Big Band music and riding my bicycle with friends. I believe in angels by our side, a higher power and all things woo-woo. And I also, as evidenced by the images on my phone, love taking selfies with my animal friends. But in my defense, I do think pets make the best accessories.
My journey to photography
After graduating from the University of Georgia with a BS in Biology, I was pretty lost. I originally thought I wanted to go to Veterinary School, but after an intern with an animal clinic in rural Georgia, I quickly found out my heart just isn’t tough enough. (You can read that story here) So, looking to redefine myself, I packed up my bags and moved to Bullhead City, Arizona with a friend. For the next few years, I made my living in the medical field but found my love for photography. I took classes at our local college, went to every workshop I could afford, and buried my nose in every instructional and art book I could find. I also offered to take photos of all of my friends and family for the experience. It was this love that inspired me to start my photography business in 2001 and I have never looked back.
Some people are regretful of their past careers, feeling like they’ve lost time, but not me. I am so blessed that I was fortunate enough to have been a wildlife biologist, which taught me an appreciation for the landscape and the tiny details of the miracle of all life. I’m also lucky to have spent time as a financial analyst for medical practices, which fine-tuned my business skills. Without either of those past careers, I wouldn’t be where I am now. Plus, to get kids to smile, I get to tell them my very first job out of college was collecting poop. Yes, this is true. I worked with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources collecting bobcat scat (poop) on Sapelo island to see what the bobcats were eating. You should see their faces. It’s so hilarious that I always end up laughing too.
Why I became a portrait and wedding photographer
One day, sometime in 1995, I was packing to move out west. I was downsizing and wanted to take only the most important things with me. It quickly became apparent that the most important things to me were precious images, of those people that I had lost, and friends and family that I was leaving. At the same time, I realized that a lot of the people and pets that I had loved so much, were absent from this small pile. My mother was always the one taking the photos when I was small, and when she wasn’t, she would always say she didn’t want her photo taken because she needed to lose 10lbs/didn’t have her make-up on/wanted a better outfit/etc. I remember thinking when I developed my first roll of film from the first wedding I ever photographed, how excited I was to be able to give that family photos of their loved ones. Happy, laughing, beautiful photos.
Because here’s what I’ve learned…
Photos don’t seem like a big deal, until they are all you have.
What’s important to me in images
I am a sentimental romantic, so I aim to get those moments that are sweet, endearing and heartfelt. Whether it’s a wedding, engagement, family or pet session, it all comes down to capturing the relationships of my clients. Yes, I’m going to get those posed photos that everyone needs and wants, but I’m always going to try and get you to laugh and hug and kiss, because, ultimately, those are the images that you and your kids are going to want in 40 years. (whether they are in them or not) Trust me.
I’ve seen some wonderful love through my camera, it’s overwhelming at times. I am truly a lucky woman.
Thank you for reading, it was long, but I hope it gave you some insight into the person I am. When it all shakes out, the people and pets in my life are my heart, they are the reason I get up every morning and strive to capture the images of love and hope in all my client’s lives. I’d love to meet you and your family and capture the love you share, so in 25, 50 and even a 100 years from now, that love will still be alive and well, and shared by those who gaze upon it.
Melissa is available for photoshoots in California in the following areas, Los Angeles, Mailbu, Ventura, Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley and the San Fernando Valley. She is also available a few times a year in Flagstaff, Sedona and Grand Canyon National Park Arizona. Please email for more information on availability.