This Photographer Found Herself in the Most Important 37 Hours of Her Life

Generation T.B.D. is a documentary photography project that invites us into the life of Travis, a 25-year old black male struggling to make ends meet while trying to make something of himself. An educated creative, Travis is one of many young Americans finding it hard to capitalize on his skills and talent.

“I’m showcasing to the world that this young black man [Travis] was a person with a whole story and background that led to his precarious state of employment,” says Melissa “Bunni” Elian, a photojournalist based in New York. “I get to show people that individuals like him are valuable members of society and they are indeed trying their best.” In 2014 The Ground Truth Project assigned Bunni the task of reporting on economic hardship, with the focus centered around young people from the Bronx. The assignment allowed her to work on something that aligned with her photographic voice. Hardship, struggle, oppression, and people of color are the main components of her visual storytelling; a focus shaped heavily by her own experience, Bunni has been able to use photography to bring changes to her own life and to those who struggle all too often to fulfill their potential.

Editor’s Note: Visual Momentum refers to the flow of storytelling and its effect on the viewer’s thinking process. This series highlights creators who are successfully using their tools and minds to create an impact on the world through imagery with the intent of inciting action. With the support of Fujifilm, we share their stories. Also, be sure to check out This Week in Photo’s Video interview with Bunni. 

Bunni’s dedication to telling Travis’ story cannot be argued. Following Travis alongside 3AM commutes home from his part-time job at H&M to early morning school runs, she was with him every step of the way. “I actually went to college with Travis, he was one of my best friends, but we fell out of contact, so this project brought us back together.” Travis is no stranger to struggle. In 2009 he used his creativity to pursue a major in Electronic Music and Media. This pursuit was cut short after funding was taken away. He then turned to studying Criminal Justice. But this, like his job at H&M, didn’t align with his long-term career ambitions.

A few years before the project Travis moved to North Carolina. He started a small video production company, Travito Photo and Film, and had ambitions of building a large client base. The competition was heavy and growing his business wasn’t easy. In order to survive, he was forced to return home to New York and live with his family. But Travis, a father of one, remained determined to build the life he dreamed of for himself and his son. He didn’t want to just survive, he wanted to thrive. Through her lens, Bunni saw how important pursuing a passion was to Travis and other young people like him. “I think at least once in our lives we should chase what we truly want and if we fail at least we tried,” she says. “I say, if you have a talent, exploit it, if you don’t you’ll be exploited.”

“Some years later Travis told me that the story and the images really helped motivate him to go even harder in life…”

Making Yourself

In America, for those with a college degree, 31% are struggling to find full-time positions in the creative and artistic industries. Should creative people like Travis give up on their abilities? Should they just get themselves a “proper job” and turn their back on the dream America has sold them? Bunni doesn’t think so. “Those so-called proper jobs will always be there, so if you’re talented and want to take that risk, do that sh*t!” she states. “Make the magic happen, as an old boss Rory Gleason used to tell me.”

For young, determined people like Travis, attaining the life you aspire to often means first living a life you don’t want to live. After giving his old room to his son, Zaire, Travis no longer had a private space of his own and would sleep on the living room couch at his grandmother’s. When not working his job in retail or doing freelance video production, he spent late evenings researching creative directors – studying their path and trying to work their process into his own journey. After walking 10 blocks to take Zaire to school, exhausted and sleep-deprived, he would rest for a couple of hours before getting back to the grind again.

“It’s beautiful to see how children can disarm adults, like a key that opens a viewer’s mind and soul.”

Spending time with Travis and Zaire, Bunni witnessed how the relationships in a person’s life contribute to their decision making and motivations. That’s why it was important for her to document the powerful connection between father and son. “The people we depict do not exist in a vacuum, and showing the layers of relationships that make up someone’s life adds complexity and raises the stakes,” explains Bunni. “It lets people know more than one life is in the balance here. It also introduces a level of universality.” She continued to state that not everyone can immediately identify with a young man from the city, but that he’s a dad is another entry point to his life.

Including important details like being both an urban man and a father within a story help make it more complete. Storytellers like Melissa think in layers which need to be translated into photojournalistic work. And though Melissa showed a penchant for photography from a young age, the photo bug took time to cocoon within her until finally emerging to spread its wings.

Melissa: The Photographic Storyteller

“I say, if you have a talent, exploit it, if you don’t you’ll be exploited.”

Bunni showed an interest in photography since high school. She would later join the University Photo Service, a photography group at SUNY Albany. However, her path would temporarily take her along the road of pre-med student. Similar to Travis, the creative flame burned strongly, and after a Social Documentary course she saw photojournalism as a realistic career option, although she admits, “My parents weren’t too happy, but they came around.”

Like most photographers, Bunni took her time to find her visual voice. Between 2013 and 2014, a series of events would lead her to connect with her photographic identity. In February 2013 Bunni was arrested at 2AM for a DWI. “An arrest isn’t something that many broadcast, but it was probably the most important 37 hours of my life.” As with any good photojournalist, even at her lowest point, she didn’t stop observing. While in jail she noticed the number of people of color that packed the men’s section at the Brooklyn Detention Center. “…black and brown men chained together. I was bewildered by the sight. It made me question how much progress America has made.”

It was time for a change and Bunni needed to refocus. What she describes as “one of the most important mistakes of my life,” would become her fuel to pursue her passion and purpose: photojournalism.

Finding Her Style

Bunni’s style of photojournalism is very much in line with her focus. Slightly underexposed, it acts as a metaphor to subjects struggling to be seen. “I feel like my work is an exposé on the light that survives the surrounding darkness, the good within the hardship and struggle, the things worth fighting for.” This aesthetic worked perfectly for the story of Travis, “how that translates visually, especially with the Generation T.B.D. project, is that there are moments that are very dark, but what remains is even that more precious.”

Alongside the color and lighting of a scene, a photojournalist must think about the way they craft an image. Each frame Bunni took had to be carefully considered in order to build both the story and the interest of others. “…for Generation T.B.D. I was looking for moments that signify the kind of work Travis did at the time.” All these considerations were done with certain limitations when following Travis. Bunni needed to regroup and show she was able to adapt. “I didn’t have clearance to capture him working at H&M, but I found that him walking in the middle of the street in Times Square really communicated how late his shift was, as did seeing him on the train and someone sleeping in the background.” She adds, “Other times I was just focused on the process of making strong frames like him walking home and entering the doors of his home.”

“…he taught me capturing the moment was more important than perfection.”

As our conversation with Bunni developed, it became clear that she was still open to learning new approaches to her Photojournalism whilst shooting Generation T.B.D “…we had two meetings with our photo editor Gary Knight to guide us on our project. He wanted to see our entire takes.” Gary’s role was influential and without his experience, some of the stills may not have made the final cut. “He actually salvaged some frames, like when Travis was putting Zaire to bed. I had thought it was too blurry, but he taught me capturing the moment was more important than perfection.” Working as part of a wider team, they decided they should shoot more interactions between Travis and Zaire. A constant review of the work was crucial in order to grasp the flow of the larger story.

As a photojournalist, one always has to be prepared. Research of a subject has to be factual and flawless, your planning has to be perfect, and you need to have all the tools available in order for you to achieve quality visual storytelling. For Bunni, a photographer often asking to enter to world of others, she needs a camera that doesn’t intimidate her subjects. She explains, “because I’m in close quarters with everyday folk, I think the small stature of the Fujifilm body and lens puts people at ease.” Her Fujifilm XF 35mm f1.4 gives her versatility, which allows her to build multiple visual narratives in the stories she tells.

Once those narratives are captured the full story must be finalized. Before showing the life of Travis to the world, Bunni and her team had to agree on the final selection. Making the slightest error could result in the story losing its message and impact. Inviting us behind the scenes, Bunni shared how she and her team approached her final image selection. “This story included audio interviews, so we were primarily interested in the images we selected being illustrative and representative.” To give the project a broader reach, she explains, “…we were sure to include frames that show universal moments/gestures; holding hands with his son, rubbing his neck on the train, playing with Zaire, or the images of diplomas on the wall to illustrate how important education was to Travis’ family.”

Bunni continues to travel the world as an active photojournalist, documenting real stories for those who face hardship. Hers and Travis’ stories can act as an inspiration to any person, creative or not, who meets adversity in the face of finding their path. This is proof that when life and those within it do their best to hold you down, you have the strength within to rise above and fulfill your skill and potential.

A Changed Woman

“When I left Ferguson, I came back with a new word I never imagined I’d use to describe America – oppression,”

In the summer of 2014, after the shooting of Michael Brown Jr., Bunni was sent to Ferguson to document the fallout after the shooter, police officer Darren Wilson, was acquitted of any wrongdoing. It was an emotional trip for Bunni. She saw the pain, frustration, and lack of hope of people from her community. This cemented her photographic focus. “When I left Ferguson, I came back with a new word I never imagined I’d use to describe America – oppression,” Bunni described to us in an interview. “That trip was the final step in establishing my photographic ethos and purpose in focusing on telling stories from the African Diaspora and people of color perspective.”

As a person of color herself, Bunni felt mainstream media had played its part in sensationalizing behaviors and stories within the black community. She believed there weren’t enough newsrooms prepared to give a voice to the truth. To her, they were unwilling to show the realities of a person of color, but rather showed what they thought a person of color to be. “I think mainstream media has visual preconceptions that they’ve relied on for centuries,” relates Bunni. “That time has passed, though there are images still being produced that tell a familiar, albeit incomplete, story.”

In part, this was her motivation to work on the ground: to keep pushing and do ethical, authentic photojournalism that portrayed a story more in line with the truth.

Photography Continues to Be Influential

Photojournalism goes far beyond raising awareness. Those intimate connections between a photographer and their subject(s) can contribute to inspiring people to push on with their life. “Some years later Travis told me that the story and the images really helped motivate him to go even harder in life,” explains Bunni. “Now he works as a Social Media Producer at a major television network.” Through her work, Bunni has been able to show that people on the fringes, or in tough neighborhoods, are full of promise and a strong work ethic. This is demonstrated in Generation T.B.D. as Travis is a success story due to struggle and sacrifice. It also highlights that, although determined, they face hurdles that are not easy to clear. But they continue to fight, they continue to dream and, like in the case of Travis, success is attainable.

That’s why Bunni’s project, the role of photojournalism, and the work of The Ground Truth Project is so important. “I think we were about to show that there is a sweetness here that isn’t often showcased that runs parallel to the grit inner-city life is known to foster,” says Bunni. “It is my life’s purpose to provide that nuance.”

About Bunni

Bunni’s work has been published in The New York Times, NBC News, Quartz, ESPN, NPR, BuzzFeed & Glamour. She’s also produced work for various organizations like Google, The Equal Justice Initiative, and UN Women. Beginning with video in 2010 at The Journal News, in 2013 she began freelancing as a photojournalist. After enrolling in Columbia Journalism School in May of 2016, she was hired as a Photo Editor by NBCNews.com, where she’d remain throughout the election year. She’s due to graduate in 2020.

Alumni of the Missouri Photo Workshop.67 and Eddie Adams Workshop XXX, Bunni is also the recipient of a Pulitzer Center grant for a research trip to South Africa for her long-form multimedia analysis on the global impact of AFROPUNK.

Editor’s Note: This is a sponsored blog post from Fujifilm

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