Interviews / Photography

Meraki House Founder Cibelle Levi Seeks to Elevate Unrecognized Talent

Photographer Cibelle Levi’s understanding of life as a duality was crafted from the wounds of youthful inner turmoil. “I always gave myself conflict. I gave myself chosen conflict, be it calling myself a black sheep from my community or isolating myself and giving myself credit as the communicator of my family. I always would piece myself apart from the world and reality that I lived in and create an internal conflict to make a point and to make a big stand. When I was young, it caused me trouble because I didn’t have an outlet to make sense of any of it to make sense of any of my feelings,” she admits, her eyes welling up. Slowly, flowers of self-appreciation and compassion spouted from that once painful chasm. “As I’ve grown my career, and now that I’m stepping into this next chapter of this agency that I’m creating, that’s way more of a big picture than anything I would’ve really expected I could do. Instead of having two worlds that I create conflict from, which is my internal world and the reality that I exist in, I’m realizing who I am as a person is worthy. I’m 30 years old now. It’s taken me this long through a crazy career path to get where I am today. I haven’t always given myself credit where it’s deserved.” What she had previously perceived as alienation came into focus as a kaleidoscope of opportunity. “I’m taking this next chapter out of just me and my camera and extending services beyond myself. It feels like a beautiful platform that I’m handing off and sharing. I finally see the value I bring to the realities I take space in and feel connected to it instead of separated. So I still think that there’s two parts to the equation and its world of duality, but where I once felt in conflict with the two, I now actually applaud and am grateful for the differences, because I see value that I bring to it.” 

Cibelle doesn’t just peer through a lens – she chooses to consciously melt into the worlds of those that she photographs. “My relationship with imagery actually developed through my conversations with my clients and subjects. To my subjects’ surprise, I wanted to be more involved in their life than they had ever experienced from any other photographer or someone they’d work with for hire. Not only did I want to be more involved in my subject’s lives than just what the camera captures, but because I actually cared. They were surprisingly always receptive to the depth of conversation and invitation to explore with me on every account my whole entire career. I can say that with confidence. I wish I could say that I had the feelings that are delivered in imagery because I’m actually so distant from the work that I execute that I can’t feel towards them. I’m proud of them, but I can’t feel how others receive my work. I rely on trusting that I have something that I can’t actually explain or put in a toolbox. Instead of trying to pick it apart, which at one point I was, I let it be and existed myself. My work just becomes an extension of me. I definitely fine tune and craft my work aesthetically by self teaching. Even now, seven years into my career, I just learned Premiere Pro and Pro Tools because I want to explore in video. It’s making that constant choice of learning new tools and evolving. Teaching myself something new is the most important thing to me. Whether it’s through conversation with subjects or shadowing production calls (still!) in the areas that I wanna excel at or lead in. I still shadow phone calls with friends who are willing to offer the space so that I could learn the scopes of things like energy or caliber of work. How else can someone continue moving into their goals if they’re not taking the active steps outside their comfort zones to shake up who they are so they could finally step into the next version? So I would say it’s definitely a part of me that is an internal, natural toolbox, but I am also mindful and aware and perpetually learning to aid and support it.”

To her, photography will always be a sort of mesmerizing amber, able to envelop an instant and crystallize it for all eternity. “I would take it way, way, way, way back to the first ever capture. I think the idea of holding a moment that only our eyes can see…we are the most complex beings that have been created. God only knows how like we have come to be, and as complex as we are, we’re given the tools of sight, which we’re blessed to have. And the idea that there is a tool to capture half a second of time in frame that you can reference and go back to – that whole thing for me is just wild. I’m okay with also doing video because in video I could still capture essence, but the reason why I didn’t step into video up until now is because I felt it was a fraud in a way that you can manipulate what a moment actually is instead of documenting it for its reality. I still have not let go of a percentage of clients who want everything on film and untouched because raw photography is the thing that breathes truth into my work. If I can maintain a percentage of real capture and real life in a growing world of, to put it bluntly, certain corruptions and manipulations, I connect to it more strongly as the world finds its troubles. It’s like a breath of fresh air for me to bring reality and truth back to people’s eyes. Cheesy, but it’s really how I feel,” she laughs.

Previously, the bulk of her photography had emphasized women as an avenue to subvert the male gaze. “It’s very easy for me to connect with women who are in touch with themselves. Women have always felt safe for me, especially because I was a woman with a camera going onto sets with people. I was just connecting with people that I didn’t know. And it never felt safe to me to do it with a male.” However, stepping into a positive and nurturing relationship with her partner caused her to consider a less gendered cornucopia of emotional possibilities for her subjects. “Now that I’m in a relationship with a man who’s the first man in my life who has a healthy relationship with his emotional intuition, I was presented with the notion that it is actually possible. Up until him, I never experienced that. So since him, I have actually been open to exploring and bringing out emotion through men as well. That part is a journey that I can’t speak to yet. That exploration of comfortable and safe space that I always felt with women is something I’m trying to kind of lower my reins from and just trust that it can be explored outside of everything I’ve created thus far.” 

Her newest endeavor, Meraki House, is both a culmination of all her hard work and a coalition of her most ardent and eager collaborators. “Meraki House is a collection of all the clients and connections I have cultivated and built a trust in over the last seven years, from people that I’ve worked directly with to people who are inspired by my work and want to work with me to other people who have always asked that, should there ever be an opportunity for them to be involved with me in any way, they’d love to be a part of it. And finally, I come to this emergence of Meraki House, which is in its own way, still forming in itself. It’s a mix between à la carte as well as a plug and play system. I know so many people on the hiring end who need projects taken care of and so many incredible talents that are – I want to make a point of this – not represented and get passed by or never get a second look. I actually believe many of them are more talented than certain representations out there in the industry. And I stand by that statement really strongly.” She wants to flourish alongside her talent instead of preying on them, an altruistic attitude that is unfortunately hard to find. “I think that the industry and the agency space in large part is not actually there to serve the talent growth of those under their roster instead of eating off of them. Since bringing this together just over a month ago, there is some sort of force of love or like purity or energy that people are receiving. Whatever it is, they just want to know more. They want to be involved. And they don’t care in which capacity. They want to be affiliated with the principle of what I’m providing as someone who is a leading photographer in my space, who without verbally making a call for action, is actually providing the platform for people to make change.”

Even in its infancy, Meraki House’s momentum is already colossal. “From New York Fashion Week, I’ve put photographers and videographers onto so many jobs while I flew back to LA and handled my own jobs here. It has not stopped. I’m filling out schedules of services between photo video, as well as sound composition, graphic design, general marketing services for a client and actual new brand identity for another client. We’re doing social media management and basically in all these frames providing incredible talent who I think will gel well with the client who’s putting in the request. This weekend is one of the biggest music festivals, Rolling Loud, and MainStage has hired Meraki House to produce all photo and video assets for the priority artists that will be performing Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. We will be doing photo and video recaps of every single day, as well as a final round out to kind of cover all of the festival from backstage to pit to VIP and entrance and all the works. That’s what I’m currently working on as we speak and I’ll be on that throughout the weekend, making sure that everything is being run well with everyone on my team in New York.” Never accuse her of thinking small. “From there, it’s really where the wind takes me. I don’t wanna put Meraki House into a box and that’s why I say that its title is being formed by itself. I love the flexibility of that. It’s all à la carte and it’s custom. It’s really just here to serve and bring healthy new talent into a space that otherwise wouldn’t have seen them.”

Cibelle views her work and who she is as a creator to be a tapestry of her experiences. “I am so particular about who I spend my time with, who I disclose personal information to and how much of my time I give away to others versus the time I give to myself, particularly because I’m such a reflector and sponge of my surroundings and my environments and my experiences, it translates into stress. It translates into stress or it translates into a tank refilled. That is my gauge as to what does and does not belong in my life and who doesn’t does not belong in my life.” No distraction could ever dilute the intensity of her intention. “I do not have time for drama. I don’t have time for games and ring around the rosy with friends or with subjects. Everything that is in my circle is deep and it’s precious and it is supportive. Not only is it supportive, but it is actively motivating me and applauding me. If I didn’t have my circle to the degree that I had and have – and it’s taken me my whole life to get me to this place of curation, which trust me was very, very difficult – I would not be able to do this or trust in myself that I could even be a leader, like how Meraki is expecting of how I’m programming everything. I’m choosing the next chapter for myself that’s asking so much and I can not afford for my life’s work to be tarnished by mindless decision making. Everything in my life now, every choice I make, everything I do is mindful. It’s mindful and it’s present.”

Despite this determination, she acknowledges the boon of possibilities and happy accidents. She will stay dedicated to weaving those threads of moments, no matter where they may lead. “It requires a lot of flexibility and allowing your decisions to not only guide you into the next thing, but being mindful that it may not always arrive in the package that you’re expecting it. The best things in my life have come about from my ability to release all control and allow them to form how they needed to form based on the structure of my life at that moment. So with that, I love who I love and I keep close relationships with the people dearest to me, and those are priorities for me to always make work. But aside from those few close knit people, I also have come to peace a very long time ago with the course of my life. What I set out to create and who I set out to be working with is going to require a flexibility of people moving in and out of my life as they serve and then exit. I see the tapestry being in continuous stitching and so abstract because I don’t want to control the course of anything that I set out to. I’m open to other options that I wouldn’t have otherwise thought might be a better way. And with that comes a flexibility of the people that move in and out of it.”

Life is perhaps Cibelle’s favorite subject. “I just feel like I love the beauty. I love the beauty of how life is shaping itself for me and how it’s forcing me to trust. If I had to take anything with me, that is the thing that has catapulted me or led me to my success in work, but most importantly led me to know my worth and love myself and be proud. It is that relationship of trust that I have built. And knowing that whether it’s a left turn or right or backwards, it is there to serve me.” No matter where life takes her, through her magical lens, she’ll be there to capture every moment along the way. 

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Meraki House Founder Cibelle Levi Seeks to Elevate Unrecognized Talent. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Cibelle Levi.