What we don’t see all that often is photography dedicated to showcasing real Black women in all their beauty. Afro-Cuban photographer Emerald Arguelles is committed to changing that though. The 26-year-old former Marine turned to art when her time in the military came to a close, and not long after, she discovered her passion for photography. She’s now using her work as a platform to celebrate Black stories, fashion and extravagance, and as a way to help the Black community feel seen and accepted. HipLatina recently had the opportunity to chat with Arguelles about her work and her vision, and she shared some powerful truths.
After four years in the military, she was ready to move on but didn’t know what she wanted to do. “My heart wasn’t really in it anymore. It didn’t seem like a place I could grow and I didn’t feel safe in my ideals anymore given that Trump was just elected,” she says. “It’s built on traditions that don’t want to bend in any way,” she continued. So she left the military and found herself on a search for a “sense of individualism,” that led her to art.
She started painting but after realizing it wasn’t her passion, she got into concert photography on the advice of a friend. Arguelles learned that while concerts weren’t it for her, she loves taking pictures. She started shooting in her spare time and eventually enrolled in Savannah State University, where she found a mentor that helped her learn more about the industry. She ended up transferring to Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) after a year, which is where she’s currently completing her studies.
“SCAD really helped refine my ideas and just my intention and what I wanted,” she shares. Since her studies began at SCAD she’s discovered what kind of photos she wants to take and what she wants to express with her work. It turns out, Arguelles’s best source of inspiration is the Black women she grew up around. Her mom is Black and from the South and her dad is originally from Cuba and of mixed race.
She shares that she was never “coddled” as a child and believes that’s the experience for many women of color. This affected her view of herself with Arguelles saying that of all the words she could use to describe herself, “beautiful” wouldn’t be on the list but she has such an appreciation for Black women and their beauty.
“The things that I saw moreso in visual arts and in cinema, it didn’t reflect that at all. It’s starting to change more recently, but I think even before that, I wanted to create those things for myself so I could believe it for me. I used the things that I saw in my community and depicted them the way that I saw them, and it would always be as ‘beautiful,’ but it ended up becoming like a healing tool for myself to see myself as that.”
Every model she’s photographed is someone she has a relationship with and she explains that she feels a certain sense of safety among Black women. “We’re having this internal dialogue that like really, no one else is in on, and it’s something that I hold dear,” she tells us. “It’s something that’s just so like, cosmic about Black women, that it has to be shown, but I think there’s been a lot of dialogue historically, about how Black women aren’t and the list continues on about everything we’re not, so I just wanna show all that we are and form these connections with Black women.”
By following her heart and honoring her roots, Arguelles has already garnered major attention in the world of visual arts. Her work has been featured in Vogue Italia, she was a part of the LoosenUp group exhibition in Rome, and her photos have been included in a slew of exhibitions in New York and Georgia. Not only that, but she’s nabbed the role of Editor-in-Chief of Ain’t Bad, a Savannah-based art publisher that aims to support a progressive and diverse community of artists. She took on the role after George Floyd was murdered in 2020 with the intention of creating a safe space for Black creators.
As the daughter of working class parents, Arguelles appreciates being driven by a passion for her job versus a sense of necessity and responsibility like her parents had when it came to their work. Being able to make an impact with her work, while making herself and her family proud, is truly an accomplishment and something that brings her joy.
“With my work, I really just want people to feel whole,” she says. “I think there’s an overall notion that everything we hold dear to ourselves and our identity is always under attack, so I think if people can see my work and kind of have like a safe haven and a place of safety and acceptance, that would be enough for me,” she says. “I also just want to be happy. Being happy is having honor and integrity for the community I’m involved in and then also in the subjects that I decide to shoot.”
Arguelles’s work is currently being featured in the Black Women Photographers Black History Month sale.