Melissa "Bunni" Elian, B.A.'10

Out in the World

By Carol Olechowski
Professor Shao Lin stands in front of the School of Public Health building sign
Melissa "Bunni" Elian visits the University Photo Service’s office on campus in January. Patrick Dodson

By age 14, Melissa “Bunni” Elian was already thinking about college. A few years later, when she was ready to enroll, the Yonkers, N.Y., native “completed a College Board test that would assess what kind of job I would like, based on my personality.” The test revealed that “it was important for me to have a product for whatever I would be doing, to see the results of my labor.”  

After considering career options as varied as movie director, architect, and graphic designer, Elian, now 31, enrolled at Penn State to study advertising. A year later, she transferred to UAlbany as a pre-med student. Though she spent two years on that track and enjoyed her classes, “I felt I wasn’t fulfilling what I envisioned for myself. I wanted to travel and be more out in the world,” Elian recalls. 

Elian works in the Photo Service darkroom as a student at UAlbany
Elian is pictured as a student, working in the University Photo Service darkroom. Patrick Dodson

University Photo Service (UPS) and a Judaic-studies class on the creation of Israel persuaded Elian to switch her major to journalism. For her first UPS assignment, “I picked up a camera and walked around campus taking pictures, filling the 36 frames on the roll of film, and went back to the office to develop it.” Patrick Dodson, B.A.’12, a UPS photographer who now works as staff photographer at UAlbany, “was surprised I had come back so fast. I was really, really eager,” says Elian, who later became chief photographer at UPS.

Elian found inspiration everywhere: in the “really interesting” shape of a fellow commuter’s hair, the “beautiful light” surrounding a subject, the mood of a gathering. An eye for detail and a gift for “capturing and sharing” emotions, colors, and textures through the lens of a camera would serve her well in her chosen profession.

Women soldier with the U.S. Army weeping during prayer
In one of Elian’s most memorable assignments – for her first job, with her hometown newspaper, The Journal News – she photographed a farewell ceremony for New York Army National Guard soldiers preparing to deploy to Afghanistan. Moved at the sight of “family members meeting each other for potentially the last time, separated by just a few feet but not touching,” she nervously trained her lens on a woman soldier weeping during a prayer and captured an unforgettable image depicting “the sadness of saying goodbye.”

In the years since, Elian has held several positions, working both freelance and under contract for NBC, as well as for The New York Times, Google, and the Obama Foundation. The Haitian-American journalist enjoys gaining international reporting experience and experiencing the independence that comes with it but acknowledges that a freelancer has to be “everything: a businessperson, an accountant, a marketing department, and a salesperson.” 

Elian welcomes the challenges – and the opportunities – that come her way. The latter include covering Afropunk, an entertainment entity that employs “musical forms, from jazz to hip-hop, to connect the African diaspora, including the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the U.S., and uphold African traditions,” notes Elian, who credits her UAlbany experience with “shaping the work I do.” 

African american woman with braids dancing at an Afropunk musical festival
More recently, Elian has covered Afropunk, an entertainment entity that employs “musical forms, from jazz to hip-hop, to connect the African diaspora, including the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the U.S., and uphold African traditions.”

When she completes her graduate studies at Columbia University this spring, Elian plans “to establish myself more as a business entity. I’m taking a break from my Instagram account, and I want to experiment more with Patreon,” a website that enables photographers, artists, writers, and other creative types to generate sustainable income while working at their crafts. She’ll also re-brand her company, currently known as Quick Rabbit Productions.

Elian, who associates the rabbit with creation, chose “Bunni” as her nickname. “I was born in April, and my birth year, 1987, was the Chinese Year of the Rabbit. I’m like a bunny – carefree and happy, but leery.” She subsequently learned of another connection: “In Swahili, the word ‘buni’ means ‘creative’ or ‘inventive.’”  

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