Emerald Arguelles Celebrates Black Stories Through the Lens of Extravagance

By Gabrielle Pharms | December 6, 2021

After spending four years in the US Marine Corps, Georgia-based photographer and editor Emerald Arguelles set out to express herself through the world of art. With photography as a medium, Arguelles’ work shines a light on Black stories inspired by fine art and fashion editorial. Thus, the self-taught photographer shares her take to the world on what confidence and opulence look like through her lens. We chatted with Arguelles about what motivates her as a photographer and how she strives to maintain her integrity through art and storytelling.

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What was the catalyst in your decision to become a photographer? Was there a person that inspired you?

I don't think it was one individual. I think after I got out of the military, I really needed an identity. I didn't feel like an individual. In a lot of the spaces I was in, especially being back in the South and having my own freedom, it was like there are so many things that I'm inspired by.

I went to Savannah State, which is an HBCU, for a year, and I had a lot of things that I wanted to do, but the resources weren't there. So, I ended up transferring to SCAD (Savannah College of Art & Design), and I just didn't see my community being represented in any type of fashion, regardless of the medium. It was more so of a protest in a sense, like I'm going to have a strictly Black portfolio, work with only Black designers and makeup artists, and it ended up being something that other people saw. They related to that as well. So, it was just more so of me just bucking the system in a sense, and that's what inspired my work as of now.

You mentioned you were in the military. How long were you in the service, and what branch?

I was in the Marine Corps for four years. I did one term, and I was done.

So, did you teach yourself photography?

I did. I used to research music managers and send them this formulated email and would get press passes to go to shows. That was fine, but there was really no satisfaction out of it at the end of the day, besides going to the show. I also noticed being there, I would be the only female that was in the pit. I was used to that from being in the Marine Corps as well, I was usually the only Black person or the only female. So, I'm kind of always used to being put in this place of adversity in a sense, and I guess all those experiences just fueled what I do now to give myself a sense of identity. I ended up finding this community in the work I make, which isn't something that I was ever really used to ever having.

That makes sense and I can relate to your situation. Specifically in the Maya, Glory, and Act of Justice shoots, I love the models' confidence and the overall luxurious vibe of the photos. What was the inspiration behind naming them? What resonates with you from those shoots?

So, for Maya, the model’s name was Maya, and it was my first time working with her, but I had been such a fan of hers – just her overall personality, her persona, and she's so confident. She’s also a punk rock artist. So, it's like seeing Black women in those alternative fields of music. I'm like, ‘Oh, she's badass.’ So, that's why I named it after her. A close friend of mine made the dress and the dress was like 40 pounds. It was super heavy. She couldn't even ship it, I had to go and pick I up, but I think that collaboration was great – even down to the makeup artist and the model.

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For Glory, that was the first shoot that I did during the pandemic. I shot it on the balcony of my old apartment because I needed to do something. I felt very unproductive and very sad. I felt like with Glory, the model’s complexion, and the colors, it gave me this sense of richness and almost like, royalty in a sense. What resonates the most, probably from Glory was shooting on my balcony, styling the model with my own clothes and its really DIY. I went to Hobby Lobby and bought the fabric and just kind of built a backdrop of different fabrics.

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Then, Act of Justice comes from Tyler Mitchell’s Black Beauty Is an Act of Justice. I was like, ‘That hits. I resonate with that so much.’ Act of Justice was the most ambitious project that I ever did. I shot like 12 models, and I was the only photographer, and I booked the house. It was like a rotation. It was like an assembly line of putting people in sets, shooting, and it was great; but looking back on that it was like 15 Black people in this house in Atlanta, and everybody got to make their own connections. Everybody was able to mingle. It felt like home. It didn’t feel like work. It really felt like we were at a cookout. It was a great experience.

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Oh, that's awesome! So, I can't believe we're less than 50 days away from 2022. So, with that new year on the horizon, what are some projects or goals that you're working towards?

For goals, it’s to graduate. That's number one. I am goal-oriented. So, I definitely want to be in a position to assist other photographers and just kind of be that resource I think that was very hard for me to get. For projects, I don't have a super in-depth answer to that, but it's always going to be the same and that’s just to hold myself accountable, having integrity in my art to display Black bodies in the most beautiful way possible, in the most accurate way possible, and I will continue to challenge myself in everything that I do.

Photography by: Emerald Arguelles