"Own Your Brooklyn Story" featuring Brittainy Newman

To say Brooklyn is a diverse microcosm would be an understatement. With such a tremendous community surrounding our home and our bikes, we're thrilled to spotlight outstanding members of the Brooklyn Bicycle Co. community and how they own their unique Brooklyn story. Read our fascinating interview with:

Brittainy Newman

Award-Winning, NY Times, AP, & Nat Geo-Contributing Photojournalist

Brittainy Newman Award-Winning, NY Times, AP, & Net Geo-contributing Photojournalist

 

Brittainy, you're from New York and studied at RIT. Your photos have been featured multiple times on the front page of the NY Times. You captured Covid, Harvey Weinstein, the US Open, Donald Trump, team photos at RIT, etc. So much of what we know about you revolves around photography and your tremendous ability to capture emotions through a lens. You have a seemingly wicked cool job with an element of freedom. Can you share more about what propelled you into photojournalism? 

I studied photojournalism in college- junior and senior year. We took trips to meet every major editor of every major publication, both in New York and DC. And we learned how to network. We made business cards, we met people, we built a portfolio, and we worked on a senior thesis.

My senior thesis was documenting the closure of the Ringling Brothers circus. My mom works as a professional clown, and I had to work on a project for my senior thesis, which was a yearlong project. I wanted to work on something that was also sort of a thank you note to my mom for putting me through college this whole way, especially as a professional clown. The news broke out that the circus was closing forever, and I immediately got onto Facebook and started researching and reaching out to every circus performer that worked for Ringling Brothers. I ended up buying a ticket to the circus when they arrived at Barclays Center. During the intermission, I went down to the ring and spoke to every single circus performer, and I ended up meeting a clown from Cuba who was going back to Cuba to join the Cuban circus. And I was like, "I want to come to the Cuban circus with you." And, ultimately, I did. I ended up going to Cuba with him for two months and photographing him there. And that was my senior thesis. And it got a few photos featured in Nat Geo, which was cool, and it was featured a little bit in the Times.

A year after graduating, The New York Times introduced a fellowship program, which was like a yearlong internship, and it was the first thing of its kind. There were 5,000 applicants and only two photographers got it. The fellowship completely changed my life forever.

Brittainy and Ryan sit down for an interview.

Award-winning photojournalist Brittainy Newman, and Brooklyn Bicycle Co. founder, Ryan Zagata, sit down for an interview.

You got your first camera when you were 13, and you're now 27. How did you get started? When would you say you first became a serious photographer?

When I was 13, my mom and I went to Machu Picchu in Peru and visited Colca Canyon. While there, I photographed a bird and submitted it to Nat Geo’s "Your Shot" contest and won. But because I was only 13, they told me I wasn't eligible to win. Then years went by, and I was in college, and we visited all the publications to network. We went to Nat Geo and I met the guy who runs "Your Shot". I told him the story of what happened when I was 13, and he looked up my photo submission, and found it. It was a nice connection and funny to come full circle.

I guess I didn't realize I was good at photography, or that I wanted to take it seriously, until my senior year of high school. I studied at the International Center of Photography and got a scholarship to go for free. It was a yearlong, black and white film class. And when I was a senior in high school, my stepdad died. We had to work on a project, and I ended up photographing my relationship shift between my mom and me when my stepdad died. I dressed up as a clown, and so did my mom, and we took self-portraits together. It was a very eerie, sad, and interesting photo project-- and also, therapeutic. That's when I started to get serious into documentary photography, and I used that work to apply for college and was accepted into the photojournalism program.

Photojournalism is a combination of photography and storytelling. How do you differentiate from being a photographer? Where do you freelance?

It's like being a visual storyteller. The way my sort of "day in the life" works is I get a phone call anytime between 6 AM and 10 AM from an editor being like, "I need you here". They call, I go. I shoot for Associated Press and the New York Times regularly- at least three to four times a week. And then I also shoot for the Greek Orthodox Church. I'm the archbishop's personal photographer. He's based out of New York, but I travel all around the world with him. I was just in Panama with him in September, I've been in the Middle East with him, and I've been to Turkey twice with him. Some of my favorite images I’ve ever shot have been with him. My stepdad gave me my first camera when I was 13 and he passed away when I was in high school of lung cancer, and I feel like somehow way up above he set this up in a way where I can be connected back to Greek roots, because he was Greek.

By calculation, you've been a serious photographer just shy of a decade. How has your photojournalism evolved? How do you see it continuing to evolve?

Photojournalism is all about trust and moving your feet. So, I've always tried to get better at that. There's moments and days where, like, I see something amazing. I just like don't go up to it, you know. I see like a moment and I'm like "oh fuck, I missed it" and it breaks my heart a bit.

I've gotten more comfortable to being closer and approaching people. I'm gotten more comfortable technical wise, using lights and flash. I used to hate using flash, I really only like natural light. I like toning and have gotten a lot better at it. Toning is color correction and bringing out the shadows. I'm really good at deadlines and being super communicative. That was a skill I had to learn very quickly while working with the biggest newspaper. My professor always told me, "go early, stay late." That's just a photojournalism tool to have.

Speaking of photojournalism tools- what do you shoot on? What do you use and what camera do you covet?

I have a Nikon D5. I do want another, new Nikon. I'm always going to stick with Nikon. I'm not into mirrorless cameras. I really need to get my gear checked out because I've been in rain, I've been in snow, I've been pushed around. I'd love to be a Nikon ambassador one day. In college, we'd have Nikon ambassadors come talk to us, and I always went up to ask "how can I be you?", and they always told me to "just keep shooting." But it's my dream to be like sponsored by Ruggard, which is the camera bag that I've had since forever. I use all their stuff, and Nikon.

Brittainy Newman - Award-Winning, NY Times, AP, & Nat Geo-Contributing Photojournalist

Future Nikon ambassador, Brittainy Newman, in her element.

Of all the cities and countries you've traveled to, is there one that has left a lasting impact on you, whether it be something you saw, or an emotion you felt?

There are probably three. The first one is Cuba. When I did the Cuban circus, I was 20 years old, and I traveled with the Cuban circus for a few months. It was amazing and I felt really in my element the whole time. There was hardly any Wi-Fi in Cuba, and there was no one telling me what to do. I was just kind of there, and I shot some of my favorite images ever.

Another place that had a huge impact on me was when I traveled to Kosovo for a five week study abroad photojournalism program. My assignment was on a woman named Flakë, meaning flame, who, while her mom was pregnant with her, had grenades thrown at their house. Flakë was a TV journalist and who was around my age at the time. She was guarded and hard to get anything out of, and I realized all my past assignments and stories at that point were on older subjects, no one close to my age. We walked around the local mall, and ultimately she told me she wrote poetry about her father who went missing during the Balkan War. We went to visit her childhood house that she hadn't ever been back to and it was really powerful to go through that with her. We saw the baby shoes on the ground, the house completely covered in hay and straw, holes everywhere. I did an audio slideshow, of natural audio sounds like her stepping on the straw, and I recorded audio of her reciting her poetry in Albanian, and me translating it with the images I shot. It was really impactful.

And the final place that was really impactful on me is when I visited Turkey in August with the Greek Orthodox Church. It was the Virgin Mary's birthday in August, and we went into this insane monastery at the top of this mountain in Turkey, in the middle of nowhere. 

And we were with the patriarch, who is like the holiest holy person of the Orthodox Christians. Usually in these settings, they really only want men to be there. And I was the only female photographer, but I was the archbishop's photographer, so I had to be there. And basically, I pushed myself into the back area where everyone's changing, but everyone said "no, no, you gotta go. You gotta go. You can't be in here." And the archbishop was like "no, no, no, she can stay." And that was, like, a really nice feeling. I really felt welcomed by him.

Photos courtesy of Brittainy Newman. Follow her at @bnewmanphoto.

Outside of photojournalism, what are your hobbies?

Well, I love music. My boyfriend's a musician. He makes psychedelic rock music mixed with, like, electronic. It's Sylvan Paul on Spotify - he just signed a record deal with Sony. I love music, I'm obsessed with playing music while on my bike, so much so that I have a speaker on my bike. I have to blast music and make sure everyone else is hearing what I'm listening to.

Brittainy's music speak on her Driggs 3

Brittainy's handlebar speaker mounted for all to listen.

And I used to make rugs as a hobby, like during Covid; I was really interested in making things with my hands. I got like a rug making machine, and my friend made me a rug frame out of the Coney Island boardwalk, and I had a little piece of history in my house at one point.

And I really love movies and films. I'm a huge film person and really love Fellini movies. I went to high school for drawing and painting; I love art. I love traveling-- I love traveling with my mom. The last time I traveled with my mom was to Thailand. We went for a month during the New Year, and it was beautiful.

You were born in New York, but moved to Brooklyn a few years ago. How has Brooklyn impacted you? Has it changed the lens in through which you see the world?

Well, I moved to Brooklyn to be closer to my friends. Literally when living in the city, I would travel to Brooklyn every day to go hang out because no one wanted to hang out with me in the city. Brooklyn is like the cool, chill spot to be. Being in Brooklyn has definitely slowed me down. When I walk outside, there's not a million people going to work like there were when I was living on 41st Street. The cafes are cooler, and I love the graffiti and murals in Brooklyn. That's probably my favorite thing about living in this borough.

Brittainy Newman Award-Winning, NY Times, AP, & Net Geo-contributing Photojournalist

"I love the graffiti and murals in Brooklyn. That's probably my favorite thing about living in this borough."

To us, a bike represents enlarging the radius of your community. For example, when you're taking the subway, and you go into the tunnel, you're dark from everything from where you are in Bushwick to the East Village. It's dark. You're in a tunnel. You focus on your music, what you're reading, or whoever's performing in the middle of the subway train. When you’re on a bike, you’re exposed to the sights, the smells, the people. Do you find yourself always discovering stuff on your bike? Has it given you a different perspective, or changed how you see or experience Brooklyn?

Definitely. Starting out, when I first got my bike, it gave me a whole new sense of independence. I could go wherever I wanted. And when I went off somewhere, I would notice a whole bunch of things. Like, I would notice, all this cool mural art, or when I would bike to Fort Tilden with my friends, I would notice abandoned buildings and an abandoned piano with flowers growing out of it-- small things like that are what I'm always looking out for.

When I ride my bike, I really feel like I’m in a movie. One because the bike is so smooth, you know, it has this really smooth way about it. And it's just super slick and it's cool. It says Brooklyn on the side, and I love showing it off. And I have a cheetah helmet and gloves; I like going faster than everyone else in my bike lane.

Brittainy Newman Award-Winning, NY Times, AP, & Net Geo-contributing Photojournalist

With her steadfast bike, and cheetah print helmet and gloves, Brittainy embodies a cheetah's speed, allowing her to ride as fast as possible on the open road.

What are your three favorite things about Brooklyn? Say you're away from Brooklyn, you're over in Turkey, or you're in the Middle East for two or three weeks, what are you missing most?

I guess this is just like a general New York thing, but it's also close to Brooklyn. It's like all the different cuisines that exist, all the different restaurants. I can literally eat Vietnamese food anytime I want. The murals and wall art are my favorite things. And the nightlife. I go to a lot of afterhours and my friends' DJ sets, and most of them are here in Brooklyn. Also, I really love the Williamsburg Bridge. I love biking on it and I love biking up the hill. I like the museums. I love the parks and having picnics in Prospect Park. I also like going to the saunas in Brooklyn and Bathhouse in Williamsburg.

Along those lines, what's your “secret” Brooklyn indulgence?

Just being on my bike in general-- I'm already a curious person, but it ignites even more curiosity, you know? I just feel hyper independent on it. I still feel the way I do when I first got my bike, like a long time ago. The independence is still there. I feel like all I need is my camera, my phone, music, some new underwear and like, you know, a set of wheels, and I can go anywhere.

I guess it's like a combination of when I'm riding my bike, and I have Shazam on, trying to pick up all the music that I hear along the streets. And I also play music on my bike’s speaker loudly while I bike. I'm into riding during golden hour. It's just really beautiful, really relaxing, and I feel like I'm in a movie. I enjoy taking like eight-mile bike rides, and testing my stamina to keep going.

"When I ride my bike, I really feel like I’m in a movie. One because the bike is so smooth, you know, it has this really smooth way about it. And it's just super slick and it's cool. It says Brooklyn on the side, and I love showing it off."

And finally, Brittainy- out of the gate, you're almost at the top echelon of your career. You're shooting for some of the most famous publications in the world, doing some of the coolest assignments in the world-- where do you go from here?

I really want to make a feature documentary. I want to make a music documentary about JJ Cale. He originally wrote "Cocaine" and "After Midnight." He's the best, and I'd love to make a music documentary in the style of "Moonage Daydream." Aside from making a feature, I hope to work on long-term stories. I'd love to travel to India during the Holi festival, and Morocco. I’d love to shoot for Nat Geo. I'd love to push myself even further. 

The greatest piece of advice my professor always told me was to “just keep going.” In college I won “College Photographer of the Year”, which is like a worldwide competition. I won Best Video, but even with that, I had to keep going.

Brittainy's Matte Black Driggs 3Brittainy rides a Driggs 3 in Matte Black. This is her second Driggs as her beloved Army Green Driggs was unfortunately stolen last year. 

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