Photographer Meiko Arquillos finds power in the sweet, small moments in daily life

Photo of a pink purse and wig on a tablecloth.

Where I’m From: Meiko Arquillos

When she was growing up in Tokyo in the 1980s, photographer Meiko Arquillos always felt she was very different from everyone around her. Nowadays, as a Los Angeles-based creator with a thriving practice, she sees clear value in having an outsider’s perspective.

“If I were a space alien and I was assigned to come live on Earth and had come up with reasons to save humanity, I would report back to my home planet all of the everyday moments that reveal what it’s like to be human. I’d say, ‘These are OK people. We should keep these people safe,” Arquillos explains. Through her lens, life is full of simple delights: cutting into a slice of cake, exchanging kind words with a stranger at the grocery store, watching the tiny ball of energy that is her family’s hamster. “That’s what I’m looking for in photography: that connection and showing how important these little moments are.”

Lighthearted whimsy flows through Arquillos’s images, especially in her homey, cheerful animated contribution to Adobe’s film Where I’m From, which explores the many experiences that have shaped fellow Asian and Pacific Islander creatives. “It’s a tribute to my grandmother, who was this really magical person,” she explains. “Everything she wore was bright pink when no one else dressed this way.” Standing out in a crowd, Arquillos observed at an early age, could be a very good thing.

Arquillos shared more about how she aims her unique lens on the world.

Tell us about a time when you went your own way in life.

I was only 16 years old when I came to this country all by myself. I was so fed up with repressive Japanese society, so I figured out a way to run away from it and study abroad. I think my parents thought that I would come back crying.

Have you always been so independent?

Growing up in Japan, I always had a lot to say, but I had to hold back a lot. My art represents a little bit of rebellion in my own way. The boldness in my work comes from me feeling like I have something to say. In Japan, my identity in terms of being Japanese wasn’t that important to me. My approach was not patriotic. A lot of other people felt an unspoken pride about being Japanese, but I never really felt part of it. My mother is half-Taiwanese, so she had a really hard time. She had to carry her passport at all times, and she wasn’t granted Japanese citizenship because her father was from Taiwan. So identity is an interesting thing for me.

How did you get started as a photographer?

I didn’t go to art school. Maybe that’s bad, but maybe that’s actually good. Growing up, art wasn’t something I was allowed to do. My parents were working people. They didn’t take me to museums. They wanted me to have a secure job and live my life their way. When I was in college, I took a photography class as an elective. My original plan had been to become a writer, a journalist, but my English wasn’t good. My writing was terrible. That photojournalism class opened up my point of view and showed me that photography can be a way to tell a story. It doesn’t always have to be through writing.

How did you arrive at your signature style in photography?

I assisted other photographers for years and years, starting out in commercial photography. I learned I had a different way of seeing things compared to most photographers. I had a wicked way of looking at things and processing things. I knew from the very beginning, if I was going to pursue photography, it had to be something that came from me. Whenever I tried to do something that was more conventional, when I tried to take the path that most people had taken before, I always failed. I thought, “Well, if I’m going to fail, I might as well create something that makes me feel.” I started to embrace my weird. As soon as I started to do that, I started getting more work. Now, people come to me and say, “Make it more weird.”

Where do you find inspiration?

I’m interested in seemingly innocent small things that make a huge difference in your life. I keep coming back to things my daughter says or the things she draws for me. My daughter is so wise. During the pandemic, every morning I would drag my daughter out to go on a walk before she would start school online. Then I’d go to my studio, which is a garage outside my home. This is where I tinker. Because I’ve been doing a lot of Zoom meetings during the pandemic, I put all these things up on the wall behind me. I wanted the wall to feel like me and make me happy when I’d look at it. I have my daughter’s drawings, a drawing of my daughter when she was a baby that a friend made for me — these are reminders of the many small, special moments that we share every day. In my studio, I try to create something at least a couple days a week. I do most everything, lighting, prop shopping, styling — that way I understand how things work.

How does home weave its way into your work?

Los Angeles is the first place that I lived in that I felt I was left alone to be who I am. Maybe it was the place I was in my life and how I felt about myself, more than it has to do with geographic location. There are so many different Asians in LA, people don’t assume who you are. You are who you are. I really appreciate that about LA — the diversity. Here, I feel free to make images that are sincere, open-hearted, honest, funny. It always makes me happy when someone looks at my photo and smiles. Then I feel I’ve actually accomplished something. It’s my way of connecting with people.

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