Celebrating Black Voices

Kaylee Arzu Depicts Black Culture and Elegance Through Portrait Photography

When student photographer Kaylee Arzu walked through the Dior exhibit of the Brooklyn Museum last winter, she admired the classic style and iconic poses depicted in the art on the walls. 

But one thing stood out to her: The photos in the exhibit predominantly reflected white women. 

“It made me realize that at this time, the pinnacle of elegance and beauty and high fashion was white women,” Arzu, MCAS ’24, said. “And of course further along in the exhibit [there were] photos of super popular Black models like Naomi Campbell, but there’s more to that than just the token Black model. I wanted to explore what elegance looks like for me.”

Arzu decided to portray elegance through her lens in her photo series, Noir, to show that Black youth can embody the same characteristic. The two-part series published on her Instagram Kaptured by Kaylee in June 2022 proves that, in editorial-style photoshoots, elegance can be sensual, gender fluid, and Black, according to the caption. 

In the first part of Noir, Arzu’s images challenge the idea of elegance being inherently exclusive to femininity, as she opted to use a male model draped in an intricate pearl necklace instead of a female model. The second part of Noir was shot partly in black and white and plays with the intersection of sensuality and elegance. 

Noir was the first series in which Arzu took the initiative to reach out to models that she specifically wanted to work with and executed her idea from start to finish. 

“It’s probably some of the images that I’m most proud of to this day,” Arzu said. 

According to Greer Muldowney, an art, art history, and film professor at Boston College, Arzu is a “photo beast.” Muldowney said she is always impressed with Arzu’s work. 

“She fit right into [the photography community at BC] and was really passionate, especially when it came to portraiture and thinking about identity issues within her work and other people’s work,” Muldowney said. 

Arzu specializes in portraiture but is becoming more interested in fashion photography, as seen in Noir and To Be Young, Gifted and Black, a recent series that she shot while in Paris. 

Arzu focuses her photography on the experiences of young, Black college students. While she mainly photographs people around BC or her hometown of New York City, this past summer she had the opportunity to travel to Paris through the African and African Diaspora Studies program’s Amanda V. Houston Traveling Fellowship. 

“That project was mainly to just explore what the young Black creative experience looks like outside of my immediate environment,” Arzu said. 

Arzu said she chose Paris because she had studied the Black renaissance that occurred there and wanted to explore the same community that many Black artists and literary figures had visited. The title To Be Young, Gifted and Black was inspired by a Nina Simone song of the same name. 

“[The song] just really spoke to reaffirming and reassuring young Black people that they are gifted, that they have talent, and that their voice is important,” Arzu said. 

To create To Be Young, Gifted and Black, Arzu reached out to models in Paris over Instagram and TikTok and approached people on the street to take their photos. She said it was exciting to scout people who were willing to be a part of her project, especially in another country. Arzu said capturing what the young, Black experience across the world looked like was also extremely important to her. 

For part of this series, Arzu photographed young Black people celebrating Pride Radicale, a Pride month celebration in Paris that emphasizes anti-racism and anti-imperialism. In one image, the subject of the photo poses with their hands placed on either side of their chest and their tongue almost sticking out of their mouth. The background of the portrait is blurred, but the fuzzy outline of a pride flag is still visible in the background. The photograph exudes a carefree and joyful energy. 

In the same trip, Arzu shot two fellow photographers at various locations around Paris. One of the images portrays the two photographers, seated back to back in foldable chairs, each with their legs crossed in their laps, wearing monochromatic outfits. They are positioned against a white backdrop with a blossoming tree in the middle. The symmetry in the photo is striking.  

While Arzu is currently focused on fashion and portrait photography, she first became interested in photography through her mother, who was a videographer for her church. While Arzu said she did not want to pursue that same exact path as her mom, having a camera in her household pushed her in the direction of photography. 

Her moment came when her high school’s photographer—someone Arzu was also close friends with—graduated and encouraged Arzu to apply for her old role. Arzu then started taking photos of school events and her friends. When COVID-19 hit, she pursued her interest further. 

“I had the camera that my school had given me, and a whole bunch of really, really good equipment,” Arzu said. “And I was like, you know what, I still have this interest in photography and literally all the time in the world—I might as well dig deeper into it.”

In addition to pursuing her own projects, Arzu also does birthday photoshoots, personal shoots, and conceptual shoots, according to her website.

Arzu is involved in every aspect of her shoots including the creative direction and styling. According to Arzu, what the model is wearing can make or break the shoot, so when it comes to outfits, she likes to be as involved as possible. Depending on how experienced her models are, she has poses for them in case they need more direction. 

For Arzu’s photoshoot with model Angel Davis, the process of posing and styling was extremely collaborative, but Arzu had a clear leadership role according to Davis. The photoshoot was inspired by the beach and simplicity, Davis said. 

“She’s definitely just a vibe,” Davis said. “We had a good time. We were playing music and while it was really cold because of the water it was still fun because, you know, she would allow me to kind of move freely, which I really do think is important with photographers.”

The photos depict Davis in a white dress and flowing shawl against the bright blue background of both the sea and sky. In some shots, Davis poses on rocks near the water’s edge. In others, she stands statuesque in the water. 

The two met through a mutual friend and decided to collaborate for this creative project. This was not the first photoshoot Davis has done, but she said it was one of her most fun and comfortable shoots. 

“[Arzu] is another Black woman photographing a Black woman … so I just felt more comfortable expressing myself through my poses, how I spoke, even just how I carried myself,” Davis said. “I felt more comfortable with her for sure, because it was for fun and to create this image that she wanted, [and] that I wanted to be part of.”

February 22, 2023