There’s no one else like Laura Aguilar.
The late image-maker, who passed away at the age of 58 last week, was known for her documentary photography of Latina lesbians and for her self-portrait body work set in the desert.
Aguilar utilized her gaze as a photographer in the ‘90s on queer, brown, working-class people that weren’t being given a space to be visible. Her work was never a photograph solely for the sake of a photographshe was an incredibly talented photographer who showed the sentimental, tender, and intimate side of queer brown bodies, both her own and others.
The first piece by Aguilar that I came to know and love was “Plush Pony,” a series named after a working-class Latina lesbian bar in El Sereno that she frequented. In the beautiful black and white photo series, the queer women she photographs are full-bodied, masculine, feminine, brown, and confident in their bodies. Though they are posing for Aguilar, who set up a makeshift studio in the bar, they are not camera-shy. Through Laura’s lens, they appear regal and unafraid, looking directly into the camera, comfortable embracing their full authentic selves to Aguilar.
If photography is about capturing a moment in time and keeping it forever, Aguilar did us all a favor. In 2018 it’s still a challenge to find representation of queer Latinx people in the LGBT media world. Through her photography, she provided a space of potentiality.
In her artist statement for “Show and Tell,” her exhibition at Vincent Price Museum in Los Angeles, Aguilar wrote about this lack of representation. “What I am trying to do is to provide a better understanding of what it’s like to be a Latina and a Lesbian,” wrote Aguilar. “Within the Lesbian and Gay community of Los Angeles, people of color are yet another hidden subculture; we are present, but remain unseen.”
The revolutionary streak in Aguilar’s work was that she was working outside of what the culture at the time was thinking, whether that was the mainstream white art world, or other Latinx artists, or the Latinx community, or anyone.
Aguilar showed queer Latinx women experiencing joy, experiencing tender moments of recognition, experiencing intimate moments of self-reflection, experiencing what it feels like to hold a woman you love, or the woman you met that night.
And if you don’t grow up seeing those visuals reflected, you may start to feel as if it’s not possible for you. Her work is a reminder that, yes, it is possible, and, yes, you are worth it. Her own worked for her in this way.
“Every time the depression comes up, I can look at the artwork and say, ‘you feel content there, you feel comfortable there,’” she wrote in an artist statement for “Show and Tell.” “I’m trying to convince myself I’m not what I always thought of myself: ‘I’m ugly, I’m fat, I’m not worth living. I am these things, too: I am a kind person, a funny person, a compassionate person. In the photographs I’m beautiful. I’m kind to myself.”
In “Latina Lesbians,” a series where Aguilar interviewed queer women on how they identify, I recognized the questions that Laura was asking, questions that I needed reassurance on when I first came out. I also wanted answers from other Latinx queer women. I needed to know how they got to the other side, how they grew comfortable existing in their own bodies, how they grew to love the reflection staring back at them each day, how they grew to understand that their intersecting identitiesqueer and Latinxare never either/or but rather fully connected.
And the women told her. Not only was Laura’s image-making about bringing visibility to the lives of queer Latinx women, but it was also about creating community around the work that came out of those interviews. A testament to why her work is still getting talked about today and why it will continue to be studied and appreciated.
Aguilar wanted to be in conversation with other artists, with everyday people she admired, and she used her art as a medium to have those conversations, to ask those difficult questions. Her art gave her a reason, but her answers were always artfulboth when she put the lens on others, but most when she did it on herself: the person she knew best, the person she grew to understand more and more with each photo.
In her body landscape series, there’s a complete transformation from her early work. It was in Joshua Tree where she let everything go, resembling a sculpture, blending in as a part of the landscape surrounding her. She’s not the “child-like, naive” (as she calls herself) woman in cargo shorts and a cowboy hat reflecting on how she became more comfortable with the word “Laura” than with the word “lesbian” because she’s no longer worried about labels. Once she was able to grow comfortable with being 100 percent “Laura,” she fully blossomed and existed in Laura’s world, a world that we were lucky to be let into.
When an artist creates from their personal experience they must define themselves for themselves first. When Laura took us all through her journey, from her earliest works of documenting the Latina lesbian community to her later work when she embraced every part of her self and blended in so well with the desert landscape that it seemed like it was always a part of her, she showed that she was able to answer all those early questions for herself that she used to ask other women about. She didn’t need to interview other people anymore; she knew just who she was on her own terms.
Aguilar’s work reminds me of one of my favorite poems, “won’t you celebrate with me,” by Lucille Clifton. In it she writes, “won’t you celebrate with me / what I have shaped / into a kind of life? / i had no model.”
Laura may be gone but her work will never be forgotten. It can’t. There’s no one else like her.