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Looking through the Lens of Success 

"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." (Photo by Melissa Bunni Elian)

ALBANY, N.Y. (April 6, 2017) – Visual journalist Melissa “Bunni” Elian, who once worked for the Torch yearbook and earned a bachelor’s degree from UAlbany in 2010, has had her work featured in The New York Times and on NBCNews.com.

Elian, who freelances for NBC, is a part-time graduate student at Columbia Journalism School. For six months last year, she was also a full-time photo editor for NBCNews.com. There, she selected the images for stories, researched stories and produced photo galleries.

Her striking photos showed the disparities between affluent and working class neighborhoods just blocks apart in a New York Times article in November. There is a distinctive humanity about her photos that draws the viewer to empathize with the subjects, such as the African American soldier ready to deploy, with a tear running down her cheek, or the woman of color wearing an American flag as a head covering at a rally seeking justice.

Elian came to UAlbany from Yonkers planning on a career in medicine. Two years later, she switched to journalism. She saw a flier in the Art building for University Photo Service (the yearbook photography group) and showed up at the meeting.

“I didn’t realize I could make a career out of photography until I joined that group,” she said. Introduced to documentary photography through the history she saw in yearbooks, she “realized that our time in college really meant something. It wasn’t just another series of tests to pass. I spent all my time in the photo office as well as taking pictures and developing images. So joining UPS was instrumental to my current path.” Elian later became Chief Photographer for UPS.

Her first social documentary course was taken with Communication lecturer Katherine Van Acker, “the coolest teacher I had.” Van Acker was “tough, but encouraging. She treated the classroom like a newsroom.” In this class Elian learned how photography has an impact on society. “Prof. V., showed us the beauty of documentary photography and the importance of capturing the essence of our modern time.”

Gordon Gallup was also a favorite professor. “He taught Evolutionary Psychology, a class that changed my entire outlook on life,” Elian said.

Gallup’s class married biology and society because it explained human phenomena like attraction and selfishness and connected them to biological drives.

“The ideas I was exposed to during my time at UAlbany are what really shaped the work I do,” Elian said. In an Africana Studies course, she learned about the devastation caused by colonialism, while human biology courses taught her to consider things from the molecular level.

Woman wearing American flag head covering.

“A woman attends the Justice or Else rally, Washington DC, Oct. 2015.” (Photo by Melissa Bunni Elian) 

“UAlbany is where I formed my lens of understanding,” Elian said. “I also learned to be a multimedia journalist, to expect to be able to do everything. Just having this mindset helps me to be competitive in the world because I have a unique perspective and have no trouble working in different platforms.”

What advice would she give to current students who envision a similar career path for themselves?

“First, write. If you can write about what you are photographing, you’re more likely to have a story as opposed to just some nice pictures. Publications are always looking for stories. Plus, you’ll have more control over your work. Second, always be working on something or at least looking for your next project.” Elian said it is good to have unpublished new work to show editors, even it is just a start, because it shows that you have drive.

“By working on your own projects, you can attract new clients. Just don’t wait for someone to assign you something,” she said.

Elian advises: “Be like a fashion designer. There isn’t a time in the year when they aren’t thinking of creations for the next season or getting ready for a runway showcase.”

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