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Photographer Melissa Bunni Elian Explores 'Different Avenues Of Blackness': Lady Shooters

MBElian BustMag06-”Tucson Irvin and Annika James are seniors at Leadership & Public Service High School. The pair are trained conflict mediators and help de-escalate problems amongst their friends.”

For the latest in our series on women photographers, Lady Shooters, Tara Wray interviews New-York based Haitian-American journalist Melissa Bunni Elian.

Can you tell the readers of BUST who you are and what it is you do on a daily basis?

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I am a visual journalist. Right now I am in a cocoon, meaning that I am actively preparing for the next stage in my life and career.

In the past few months, I started at Columbia Journalism School and NBCNews.com in the same week. So right now, my days are filled with routine: reporting school work during the day, news work until midnight, shooting assignments when I can. Rinse. Wash. Repeat. I binge watch a show every once in awhile for when I need a break from it all, ha!

MBElian BustMag02“Father and daughter at the Justice or Else Rally, Washington DC, Oct. 2015.”

MBElian BustMag08"A food cart vendor prays.”

What do you want to tell the world with your photography?

I'd mostly like to share the humanity of people on the margins. The fact that people feel, laugh, strive, etc. is lost when we use labels to talk about them. Think of the phrase "the poor” or the "low-income." By defining people by one dimension we lose their complexity, which they have a right to.

It's about expanding perspective, and I try to show the world as my subjects experience it. I don't just see a man on a bus with kids. I try to see a man doing the best he can, nearing the end of the day, who is trying to teach his son life lessons on their way home. My role in all of this to amplify the beauty, magnitude, and importance of such small moments and what they mean in a grander scale.

MBElian BustMag10“A father cradles his children on the bus ride home.”

MBElian BustMag05“A student walks off of a stage triumphantly after winning a mathlete competition.”

Who or what would you say were your greatest creative influences growing up, and how did they shape the photographer you are today?

First, I've been carrying around a camera since high school. Then, in my junior year at SUNY Albany, I joined a student group, University Photo Service. Former members of the group include Teru Kuwayama and Julia Xanthos. That summer, 2008, I became hooked.

At first, I thought I'd shoot fashion or album covers. It was a social documentary photography class that really solidified my interest in capturing real life and its greater purpose in society. The first photobook I owned was about the Vietnam War. My favorite photographers are August Sander for his work capturing all levels of German society, especially the poor, Jamel Shabazz and his book A Time Before Crack because it was the first time I saw a body of work positively depict black culture, and Annie Leibowitz because of the drama she brings to a photograph.

MBElian BustMag03“The daughter of Akai Gurley is held up for protesters to see. Gurley was shot in a dark hallway by an NYPD officer.”

MBElian BustMag04“Maurice Ashley, the first African-American International Chess Grandmaster sits for a portrait in Brooklyn, NY, April 5, 2016. Ashley was inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame on April 13, 2016. The 50-year-old Jamaican born New Yorker will be the first African-American inducted and the 58th American to receive the recognition.”

 

Talk to me about your own depictions of black culture in your work.

You know, I didn't know I was focusing on black culture until I was putting my portfolio together! When I was finished I was like, "Okay! I guess this is what I'm interested in!" Ha.

And it was really that natural and I think it stems from the fact that for most of my life I was the only black person wherever I went. So my work is really exploring all the different avenues of blackness, an exploration of the African Diaspora. I'm looking for myself in a way. I grew up surrounded by Americana and Catholicism and suburbia. I'm interested in depicting the lives of all kinds of brown people because those are the stories I grew up with the least, life outside that which is considered mainstream.

MBElian BustMag09“The farewell deployment ceremony for the New York Army National Guard Soldiers of the 101st Expeditionary Signal Battalion where soldiers said goodbye to their families before departing for post-mobilization training at Fort Bliss, Texas and eventual deployment to Afghanistan, August 19, 2012. Copyright The Journal News.”

MBElian BustMag07“A woman attends the Justice or Else rally, Washington DC, Oct. 2015.”

Your name is Melissa but you go by Bunni. Is there a story there?

I was pre-med my sophomore and junior year and I had a pre-quarter life crisis. As I figured myself out, I wrote a poem about nicknames, how they were a way for other people to understand you. I thought, why don't people give themselves nicknames? So I did. Bunni. I came up with that name because I thought it was a good animal to align myself with. Bunnies are elusive, don't let anyone get close, but if they did people would see how soft they really are. That spoke to my tomboy side and my very girly side. Also, I had to be on the lookout for wolves. So when I picked up the camera with serious intention, I also picked up a name.

My pre-med days are useful to my current worldview. People would be amazed by how much a class on animal behavior, population genetics, and evolutionary psychology can inform you about society. I hope one day I can apply these scientific ideas to my work. Journalism and science are such similar disciplines, so I was always on the right path. My nickname reminds me of my journey.

MBElian BustMag01“An entry from the diary of Melissa Bunni Elian. Elian has kept a journal since 2nd grade when her teacher gifted her with one after finding a school notebook with all of her scribblings.”

MBElian BustMag11“A garbage man poses for a portrait after a concert.”

Is there anything you want to share with the readers that I haven't touched upon?

Anything that you are aiming for takes time to attain. I've been doing this for six years and it was all a struggle, but I feel the breeze of a payoff on the horizon. It took me two years to get in the door at NBC, then 4 months to meet with the person who introduced me to the editor who gave me an assignment that led to a contract position! The other thing is to find the good in everything and focus on it. Now my contract is up with NBC. At first, I was sad because it's such an awesome place, but now I have more time to focus on school and work on personal projects and go hard af! Just keep going always, all ways.

All images Copyright 2012-2016 Melissa Bunni Elian. All rights reserved.

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Tara Wray was born in Kansas and now lives and works in Vermont. She is the director of the documentary films Manhattan, Kansas (SXSW 2006 Audience Award winner), about family relationships and mental illness, and Cartoon College, about the weird and wonderful world of indie cartoonists. In 2008 she turned her attention to still photography, self-publishing the photobooks "Each One Wonderful" and most recently “Come Again When You Can’t Stay So Long,” a follow-up to Manhattan, Kansas. She also curates an interview series on VICE called Doin' Work: Flash Interviews With Contemporary Photographers. Follow Tara on Instagram.

 

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