The Secret Life of RV: Riley Arthur

11 months ago

We can’t brag enough about our biggest competitive advantage: Our people. They’re some of the smartest, most talented, most interesting people on the planet – and we’re not exaggerating. In fact, if you knew even half the things our employees are up to in their spare time, it would blow your mind.

The Secret Life of RV reveals some of the coolest things our employees are doing outside of work. (Read: THIS is where we blow your mind.)

Secret Life: Riley Arthur

Bankrate photographer/Photojournalist

Riley Arthur

Riley graduated from University of Central Lancashire with a Master’s in Visual Journalism, she also has bachelors’ degrees in Photography and Theatre from Southern Oregon University. She has been running a freelance photography business for eight years. Before joining the Design team at Bankrate, Riley was a photo editor at HuffPost. Aside from photography and diners, she enjoys hiking, traveling, and cinema. 

Did we mention she’s also the mastermind behind @dinersofnyc? No? That’s because you probably already saw it in this New York Times feature.

Q: Hey Riley! Tell us about this (not-so-secret-anymore) NYC Diner project. What inspired you to photograph every single diner in New York City?

A: When I lived in New York, I lived really close to one of Queens’ most famous diners called the Neptune Diner – it’s frequently voted the best diner in the city. It’s really old, it’s got this faux rock exterior, it screams the ‘70s…

Neptune Diner

Q: Ah, so much shag carpet.

A: Exactly. I passed by this landmark building every day, and I kept thinking, ‘I’ve got to photograph this, I’ve got to photograph this.’ And it’s funny — for the longest time I didn’t. It’s just one of those things. For instance, now that I live in Florida, people always ask if I go to the beach every day. Well, no, I don’t. Because it just becomes scenery after a while.

Q: That’s fair. What changed your mind?

A: There are actually a number of really beautiful diners in New York. And when I started looking around, I realized that they’re all closing — they’re being gentrified out of their neighborhoods. That resonated with me. What I love about photography is the opportunity to document things, to create a record of what’s happening around you. So, I decided to look for photographers who were tackling this issue, thinking I could get involved in their work. But there was nobody. New York has got millions of people and tourists coming in and out all the time — not one was setting out to photograph these diners. So, I thought, ‘why not me?’

Q: What’s the response been like so far?

A: Luckily in New York, having a camera and taking pictures is something that tourists do every single day. In Manhattan especially, people aren’t phased in the slightest. But, I’ve found that when I start talking to the owners and asking questions like, ‘how long have you owned this place,’ they’re charmed by the interest. I know enough now that I can speak with intelligence about diners. If you get the right person, they’re happy to open up. Plus, I do try to patron every diner I shoot. If you’re a paying customer, you can usually get away with snapping some photos.

Q: What’s your go-to diner delicacy?

A: I am partial to Matzo ball soup. If I’m in New York for a weekend, I’ll try to hit anywhere between 5-14 diners in a single day. That’s a lot of eating. It’s lots of cups of coffee. You have to pace yourself. So, I try to order the soup, or half a cantaloupe — things that aren’t going to fill me up so I can continue to eat for several hours.

Q: You’re saying there’s a method to this madness?!

A: Oh yes, there has to be. Especially now that I don’t live in New York, I have to be super organized and approach everything thoughtfully.

(Probably so you don’t end up like this.)

Q: How do you keep track of all these diners?

A: When I initially started the project, I realized there’s no textbook definition of what a diner is. You know a diner when you see it, right? But if you do a Google search for diners in New York, you won’t come up with an accurate number. So, I went to the city health inspection code and downloaded an expansive spreadsheet on the ratings of all the restaurants in the city. I started searching for restaurants with the word “diner” in the name – but that’s not a complete count.

Example: Seinfeld’s infamous ‘Tom’s Diner’ is actually called Tom’s Restaurant.

There are also small delis and coffee shops and cafes. If you opened a diner in NY today, you’d probably call it a “restaurant” so it doesn’t give the impression of cheap food – but it’d still unequivocally be a diner.

Q: You mentioned you’re living in Florida now. How often do you make it back to NYC?

A: Not too often. Usually a couple times a year. When I go for work, I’m only available for lunch or dinners. I might try to tack on a weekend. Now, because I’ve done so many, they’re fewer and far between. I’m probably not going to get any more 10-diner-days because the 50ish that are left are so far apart.

Q: Hey, sounds like you’re in the home stretch! How many pictures have you taken?

A: Thousands. I’ve shot so many diners, that I can post photos on my @dinersofnyc Instagram account 3 times a week and keep it going, despite not being in New York and not knowing when I’ll be back.

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Q: Some of those pictures got picked up by the New York Times. (Congrats, by the way!) What was that like?

A: To be honest, I always thought this would be really good content for the New York Times because it covers all 5 boroughs and it’s a pretty unique topic. But I didn’t think it’d be published so soon! I’ve only been doing the project for 2 years. It’s every photographer’s dream to get published in the New York Times. Now, I’ve been published there and Nat Geo. So I have this great problem: what’s the next milestone I need to set for myself?

Q: Hold up. National Geographic?! Storytime.

A: Back in 2013, I got a Fulbright grant to research, photograph, and document the biggest human rights violation in the history of modern Slovenia. When Slovenia became independent from Yugoslavia, they had to decide who could be a citizen and who couldn’t. In doing so, they completely erased over 20,000 people from the national registry — literally, deleted any record of them ever existing in the country. So, I conducted the first wide-scale research to ever be done in English on the topic. For the project, I was interviewing people from various places, and I needed funding to hire translators. I applied for a National Geographic Explorers Grant and got it! I’m a National Geographic Explorer, which is a title you can always keep after you get it. Afterwards, I worked for National Geographic again, leading photography workshops for student expeditions in Prague and London.

Q: That’s insanely awesome. Why are you drawn to that kind of work?

A: I have a pretty different background as well. I’m from American Samoa, and I grew up there for 18 years. So, I identify with being an outsider. My passion lies in documenting underrepresented people and communities and, now, places.

Q: How in the world did you come across Bankrate?

A: Haha, the work I’m doing at Bankrate is a complete departure from what I’ve done in the past. The types of projects I did for Nat Geo were fulfilling, and they look good on your resume. But securing funding can be a gamble. I applied for the Bankrate position because I was looking for a completely different kind of opportunity. Personal finance was not a field that I knew much about, and I saw it as a chance for me to grow.

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Q: You’ve been with Bankrate for over a year and half now. Looking back, are you glad you made the jump?

A: Absolutely. I love taking on challenges, and there’s no shortage of that here. I work closely with the design team, and we’ve got a group of really creative people who are always eager to help each other and constantly want to innovate. Additionally, since joining Red Ventures, I’ve been able to work with so many different people and teams. It’s nice to have some stability with Bankrate, plus the freedom to pursue some of my own passions outside of work. I’ve really built a place for myself here.

Q: What’s your next earth-shattering project?

A: I have lots of ideas. I’d like to resume the work I did during my master’s thesis, documenting what it’s like to live in Post-Soviet Baltic states. I’m also interested in exploring Colorado’s mining ghost towns. Unfortunately, I tend to start projects in places I don’t live (laughs).

Q: After that, might we suggest covering Culture FEST 2018?

A: Definitely. I’m there.

Follow Riley’s diner adventures on Instagram, and check out her portfolio of past projects. (Seriously, do it.)

Hungry for more secrets? Read about RV’s resident vinyl DJ Tashawn Jones, or esteemed Hollywood actor, Mike Monzitta.

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