Bonnie Arbittier

What has been going on in the past year of your life?
I started working in graphic design in the fashion industry in New York after I graduated in May [2014]. I quickly realized that the fashion world was too crazy and extreme for me. There’s the romantic view of the fashion world, but once you are in it, it’s very different. While I made some huge accomplishments and got some of my designs in New York Fashion Week, I didn’t especially want to be a graphic designer. I kept thinking back to my internship at Annie Leibovitz and my photojournalism projects on the side. So, I moved back to York [Pennsylvania], where my family is, and I worked as a photojournalist for a local newspaper for six months.

Then what brought you back to Philadelphia?
I got tired of being in a small town. I love Philadelphia because I love being in a city. I love the grit and the creative inspiration. In York, I was making $50 per article that I shot, and since I got four assignments a week, I only made $200 a week.

Wow, so how did you get by?
I lived at home, but I was doing exactly what I want to do for my career, which is photojournalism. The men who were on the photo staff at that newspaper inspired me beyond belief and taught me so much about photography and having the confidence to take pictures.

Just goes to show how hard life is sometimes.
It really is. That’s why I’m so nostalgic for the Patti Smith Just Kids era. [Photographer] Robert Mapplethorpe would work all day and night and was able to become famous for doing what he loved. A lot of us grow up with the white picket fence backyard and we grow up living so comfortably, but once you graduate, you realize how hard things can be.

So what is it that you love about Patti Smith?
Her storytelling. I love that I didn’t even start initially looking to follow her story. I discovered her through Robert Mapplethorpe, and that was why I picked up Just Kids. We are very similar in that she spent time in Philadelphia, was an artist, and was often stuck between reality and creative pursuits. I love that she wrote about that hesitation as an artist. I have a lot of trouble mentally pursuing what I want to do and not even really knowing what it is that I want to do. I think she expresses that really well. She looks to Robert for inspiration, and I am similar in that I also get inspiration from other people. When I see people pursuing something so passionately, it makes me realize that I want to do this too. I have to stop making excuses.

You mentioned photojournalism. What is it about this type of photography that you find important?
I find that in today’s generation, we have such a short attention span. You go on Instagram and swipe through people’s photos. I hate myself for saying this, but I rarely find myself reading full articles. I just read the headline and skim, so, for me, the photo becomes the most important element. Everyone is a photographer these days because of the phones that we have. That’s why photojournalism is so important. It’s the responsibility of the publications to show real content and inform the public.

What was the story of your first camera?
I got into photography because I wanted to take a creative Facebook photo. I edited the photos so poorly. They were really awful! [Laughs] I used my mom’s point-and-shoot, but it wasn’t mine. She would always complain that I had to bring it back to her room. For my graduation, I got a Canon Rebel XSi, which I then used for 6 years. It was so sweet because my whole family pitched in. Once I went to Penn, I had a high school friend transferring to Temple, so he was also going to be in Philadelphia. We always went on these photography dates. He had a Nikon and I had a Canon, and he really taught me how to use a camera. I basically fell in love with him and photography. [Laughs]

So you were a Fine Arts major at Penn. What do you think about art being taught in a formal setting?
When I was home this past year photographing for the newspaper, I was in a creative rut. I ended up calling every member I could that belonged to the Photo Society of National Geographic, which is basically the group of photographers who have shot for the magazine. One woman, Lynn Johnson, gave me some great advice. She said that you can hear as much advice as you want, but you just have to take the photos. Pick up the camera and go. Relatedly, in that formal setting, you can listen to as many people as you want, but words can only go so far. The key is to pay attention to the advice that will help you improve, and take it to get the motivation to shoot.

That’s some great advice. Do you prefer digital or film?

Really? I feel that most people often say film.
I’m really impatient. There is something to be said about having patience for film. However, especially as someone who wants to pursue photojournalism, in these days you need the technology to send in your photos right away. There is always the nostalgic aspect of film, and all my photography heroes shoot with film, but for me it’s not about what medium you take a picture on but what picture you take.

Were there any classes at Penn that you regret not taking?
To be honest, I wish I didn’t major in Fine Arts. I think I would have been a photographer regardless, so I wish I studied International Relations. I could have learned more about what is going on the world, and then used the camera as a tool. I don’t want to do simply photography for photography. Some things I learned are very valuable, but I’m only now starting to realize the power of the photograph as an instrument, rather than the camera as a fun way of expressing art.

What global issues are you particularly passionate about?
I’m really interested in what is happening in Israel. I was there for Birthright, but now I have a friend serving in the army and we talk via Whatsapp everyday. He recently sent me two photos. One is the beautiful sunset with a silhouette of him and his fellow soldiers, and the other is of the moon eclipse at 4 am by his house. He wrote me notes on the back and it said something like, “With all these terrors happening in Israel, I only wish I was talking to you and sitting with you.”

So romantic!
It was very sweet. That’s why I am passionate about keeping up to date on the current events in Israel: because I know people there that are affected everyday.

Who are some photojournalists that you follow?
David Alan Harvey and Larry Fink: two of the greats that I saw speak at the Look3 Festival of the Photograph this past spring. There was the one cover of Time Magazine by Devin Allen of the Baltimore riots that really struck me, because it was a scary reminder that history was repeating itself. I love Aaron Huey for doing a walk across America. Also, Nan Golden because she documented an era, essentially. One thing to look at is her book The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. She wasn’t strictly a journalist but she completely immersed herself in the 80s in New York and documented the real grit and grime. That’s something I want to do.

What about your favorites on Instagram?
A friend of mine – @mpmagers – started out in business and now does photography. His street photos are incredible and I love his Cuba work. He and I both photograph for Roads & Kingdoms, a travel journal. I also love @davidalanharvey because his captions are brilliant. My captions on Instagram are immensely inspired by his musings. Another friend of mine – @thefacelesskid – travels on tour with a ton of different bands and documents America as Jack Kerouac would if he had an Instagram.

Let’s talk about your series for Vice called Beautiful Gays.
My friend Matty found a column online called It’s Beautiful to be Gay and it was supposed to be about the gay culture of specific cities. Matt reached out to me and I took photos of him and his boyfriend at the time, specifically for the column. I felt so comfortable around the boys and they felt comfortable about me. Everything about that series was perfect. We were in a room with one window, and it was one of those moments where you look through the camera and realize, “This is going to be good.”

What does your travel bucket list look like?
I want to go back to Israel and stay for a long time. I’d like to live there and be a part of the community. If it was safe, I would go to Gaza and the West Bank. I want to show the Palestinian aspect of the conflict as well, so everything isn’t one-sided. I want to do a trip across America as well. I think there is a lot to be said about the Midwest and New Orleans.

What films would you re-watch in a heartbeat?
Requiem for a Dream, The Virgin Suicides, Nymphomaniac, Before Sunset, Boyhood, and Lost in Translation. I’m not dark, but my movie taste is.

How do you take your coffee?
I like cappuccinos with two spoonfuls of brown cane sugar. In Philadelphia you’ve got to go to La Colombe and Elixr.

You would you like to chat with over coffee?
Jack Kerouac and my grandfather.

What’s your biggest indulgence?
Croissants. I eat one once a day. It’s a really bad habit. [Laughs]

Who would you like to photograph?
Ali Michael. She keeps the internet and my Instagram full of humor. It is important to be reminded of how funny life is as I’m scrolling through very serious issues on my feed.

And last but not least, how do you define beauty?
Whenever I point out someone who I think is attractive, my friends always raise their eyebrows and say, “What, really?” [Laughs] I don’t find conventional beauty beautiful. It seems that beauty for me is often a detail about something or someone. There was a boy who most people wouldn’t identify as handsome, but he had this gaze that made him one of the most beautiful people that I have ever seen. My sister has a freckle on her lip and that’s a detail that I find absolutely stunning. Beauty is about the way people move, certain facial gestures, but it’s always about the details.


For more of Bonnie’s work, check out her website.