Gay ‘Heroes’ artist gives Atlanta a parting glance

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Whether he’s revealing “Secrets,” exposing “Truths” and “Lies” or unmasking “Heroes + Villains, ” gay Atlanta photographer Philip Bonneau does it with backing from a rabidly loyal local fan base. Now it’s time to say so long.

After eight years in Atlanta, the next chapter takes Savannah-bred Bonneau (photo) to Miami for a job opportunity in creative marketing. But after making an impression that’s uniquely his own – from gaying up super heroes and being nationally heralded, locally adored and continually ballyhooed for it, to stripping naked and doing gay Atlanta doggie style as one of its hottest men – the artist says that he’s not done with us yet. And he’ll never forget which city put him on his current path, he assures us.

“There is no way a photographer could do anything alone,” Bonneau tells Project Q. “From friends being models, to make-up artists, caterers, liquor sponsors, to the people who offered up their spaces for me to do my shows for charity, I am absolutely who I am because of the Atlanta community and the kindness of others.”

From Hotlanta to the Miami heat, we got Bonneau to submit to a revealing “exit interview” before his departure next week. Together we retrace his steps from a Swinging Richards stripper trying to make ends meet to Miami's new graphic designer, brand expert and photographer. Those tidbits come with the scoop on where he'll party out his final ATL weekend – and when he’s coming back.

How would you describe the you when you got to Atlanta versus the man who’s leaving?

Then: Hopeful, naïve. Now: Determined, compassionate.

How has the work you’ve done here propelled you forward?

I've had one day job since I moved here being a graphic designer for Finished Art Inc., doing branding, packaging and point-of-sale predominantly for Coca-Cola. Many a year ago, I worked at Swinging Richards in order to do what I had to for making ends meet. Outside of the day job, I have spent the last six years doing freelance design work for almost every Atlanta based charity within the gAy-TL community.

Designing for Coca-Cola has taught me a lot of how to direct things for universal appeal. As the world’s (formally No. 1) most-recognized brand, they push you to find connections in people. That has definitely carried over into my photography and charity design work as the major motif of connecting people. As much as the SR stint was more from necessity, it tends to teach you a lot about humility. I think that was really the first time I threw myself completely out there for criticism, birthday suit and all.

What is this new job opportunity, and why is it too good to pass up?

I have accepted a position for one of the world's largest designers and manufacturers of bridal wear [Bonneau is embargoed from naming the company]. My position has me being a part of the team that oversees how this company presents itself to the world. I get to have an integral role in everything from the fashion photography, all the way to the branding.

With my “Heroes + Villains” series, I've invested my time in having people's fantasies come to life. Switching to this industry, I am still doing the same thing. Every woman has dreamt of what their wedding would be like. In my own way, I'm helping that dream come to life.

The company is one of the only bridal designers to be officially licensed by Disney, so I finally get to see what my “Heroes + Villains” mind can do in the context of Disney princesses and a budget. In this position, I finally get mentored into fashion photography as opposed to being solely self-learned. It's a chance for me to grow so much more.

What will you miss most about Atlanta?

I am absolutely going to miss the sense of community here. It's very hard to not feel that when you have photographed over 130 characters in one series and tackled very personal subject matter in others. And those were all people from Atlanta. Everyday people.

When I first started photography I asked people to help me with this, people came. When I needed a place to have my first show, people came through. That grew exponentially as things grew over the years. It’s different from other cities because this is the South. We may not know everybody, but we know of everybody. People are always there to help here when someone needs it. That creates a family dynamic that can only really come from the South.

Of all the manifestations of your art – individual pieces, shows, projects and collaborations – which ones stand out as turning points?

For me, every show has told a story and been a turning point for me. In my first show, I opened my mouth for the first time to say something important to me.

I'd say my first Kickstarter for “Heroes” was the major turning point though. I had to come to terms with myself on if I really want this or not. I very nakedly threw myself out to the world asking to believe in me. It's one thing to ask friends for help, another to ask strangers. I have always been a very proud person and me doing that really shattered that pride. It made me realize that if you aren't prepared to do anything and everything for something, then you don't really want it.

Are you planning to hit gay Miami just as hard as the ATL?

I was asked during the [Miami job] interview if I was prepared to give up everything I built here in Atlanta. I told them I was not giving it up, but expanding my family. I get a unique experience of introducing my ATL work to Miami and see how that comes across while partnering with local charities there with it.

But I am not done with ATL just yet. They still get my final curtain with my “Brave New Secrets” that I've been building on this year. That series will now be shot in Miami, but will premiere in ATL. It's the conclusion to the story that was set up and expanded on from the very beginning. It's my Heaven show of going through Hell and Purgatory for what you want and need in life.

What would you say to others about reaching for dreams?

You are going to get a lot of “no’s” in your life. You are going to get a lot of criticism and people telling you what you should and should not do. That will never go away, and the closer you reach your goals, the louder either set of voices will be. You open your mouth and you invite positive and negative reactions. Both can be fuel for the goal. But you will never know those reactions unless you do speak.

If you want something, do it. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Don't expect things to be handed to you. Be prepared to work daily. There is always someone who you can learn from and always someone who will be “better” than you or “different” from you.

Your dreams are always going to evolve, so be prepared to grow with them. Be patient and take one step at a time instead of getting frustrated when it's not instant. What starts out as a small step can eventually lead to running a marathon. But just remember it is OK to rest once in a while as well. Dreams coming true will not come from just your passion and dedication, but also on your ability to make everyone around you believe in nothing else but that dream when they see you.

But most of all, once you reach your goals, never think this is it. There is always room to grow and there are always other dreams to be had. The important thing is to live your life as you want it and not how others tell you.

You leave next week. Will we have any opportunities to say goodbye in person?

There are so many amazing gay things to do this week in the community that those are more important to me. I'm going to the Big Gay Game Show for Lost-N-Found on Wednesday, the GA Voice Best of Atlanta on Thursday, Heretic on Friday, and would have done Joining Hearts but you snooze you lose on those selling out. Then of course there is Sunday Funday at Ten. The focus should be on the community and the charities they are supporting this week. I'm just the Where's Waldo in the group to support them.

Any parting words for gay Atlanta?

ATL, thank you for everything these past eight years. I've become the man I am now because everyone here. I have a lot more growing to do in order to be the man I can be, but I never could have gotten to this point without you. Every one of you that I've met has touched my life and I have one hell of a scrapbook to take with me to my next chapter. I never expected to be able to do what I've done with my art, but it never was just me. It was all of you as well. I've been humbled that we have raised over $20,000 for charities over the years. Stay tuned; I'm just starting.

Photo by Corey Tucker


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