Strapped with three cameras, self-taught photographer Ruben Natal-San Miguel hit the streets in search of people who form the heart and soul of New York. While many popular images of the city revolve around gentrifiers, tourist destinations, or crime, Natal-San Miguel is on a mission to create a more inclusive portrait of the people who keep New York operating 24 hours a day. Natal-San Miguel’s portraits are stories of people and places, of the way the city shapes us and creates so many fascinating combinations of style, personality, and beauty.
Inspired by the work of Nan Goldin, Diane Arbus, and Helen Levitt, Natal-San Miguel adopts a straightforward approach to portraiture that fuses the kinetic energy of city life with a profound sensitivity for his subjects. Recognizing the power of visibility for historically under-represented communities, Natal-San Miguel is committed to photographing Black, Latino, and LGBTQ communities, with a particular focus on women and femmes.
Natal-San Miguel first took up photography after surviving the 9/11 attacks while working on Wall Street. “I decided that I no longer could live in the Upper West Side,” he says. “I relocated to Harlem and noticed the rich street culture that was being eradicated by gentrification. I started to photograph it for myself and then realized the responsibility that came with it. As America becomes more diverse, it is important that all art and media, especially photography, documents the important changes occurring.”
An Act of Love
In 2019, two events would change Ruben Natal-San Miguel’s life forevermore. The very same day his beloved mother passed, his friend and neighbor, Jennifer Schlecht and her five-year-old daughter Abby, were brutally murdered by her abusive husband, who then committed suicide. Recognizing the harrowing legacy of femicide and abuse that often begins at home, Natal-San Miguel recalls, “My mother was not allowed to look at her father while talking to him. I witnessed that at five years old.”
Determined to honor and uplift women, Natal-San Miguel set out to create “Women R Beautiful”, a series of portraits that offer an expansive and inclusive portrait of womanhood today. Natal-San Miguel took to the streets of New York to photograph women he encountered along the way. “I go out with an open mind and like to photograph anyone that catches my eye,” he says.
While headed to see a live performance by Rashaad Newsome at The Studio Museum of Harlem, Natal-San Miguel noticed a young Black woman in a hot pink sweater wearing gold handcuff earrings. “They weren’t made of plastic — they weighed just as much as real handcuffs!” he reveals. “I decided to title the picture Not Just Another Vanilla Portrait because her look did not fit any normal standards. At that time, Black portraiture was barely visible, especially in Massachusetts where it was first exhibited.”
An Act of Remembrance
The stories of the women Ruben Natal-San Miguel photographs are as powerful and moving as the portraits themselves. In the Bronx, he encountered an older woman with air rollers and a neck tattoo with “Carlos” written in script with three hearts. “I was drawn to the architectural perfection of her curlers, then saw the tattoo on her neck and asked her who Carlos was,” he remembers.
“Her response was very resentful: ‘He is a very bad husband.’ I understood that her tattoo, once done out of love, is now a symbol of bitterness. Many people do not have the financial resources to have a tattoo removed. She was in an abusive relationship and that is the permanent scar of it.”
While walking through Marcus Garvey Park in East Harlem, Natal-San Miguel met a young woman who radiated beauty and confidence. She wore a bright red jacket with matching red lips, red tipped hair and a massive tattoo across her chest announcing her name: Ivangeline. That 2019 portrait would prove to be more than a passing encounter — a remembrance of a young woman in her prime whose life was far too short.
“I photographed when Ivana was 18 years old. She did not make it to her twentieth birthday. Ivana died in July 2021 from an overdose,” says Natal-San Miguel, whose brother also passed from cancer shortly before. He met Ivana’s mother Elsa and bonded over their mutual loss, later creating a portrait of her in the very spot he had photographed Ivana two years before.