New Jersey-based photographer, Mike Ruiz, featured on Next Top Model and RuPaul’s Drag Race, started an ongoing series to highlight the beauty & diversity of the leather community - showing that it’s not about just wearing leather or kinky sex. According to Ruiz, “It’s about a community of men who form a strong brotherhood with a rich history rooted in community service and inclusion dating back to the 60s. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know. I figured the only way to get an accurate account was to go to the sources.”
The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated an existing problem; the diminishing of queer communities and their spaces, which were already becoming sanitized and assimilated into the mainstream culture. With this, Ruiz focused on the community he explored his entire life without shame or apprehension. He embarked on this project to experience liberation that he hadn’t known before.
During his travels, meeting, and bonding with these men, Ruiz saw how free and empowered they are. Which granted him the power to let go of his hang-ups about sex and relationships. Much of the project happens while the camera is down. Talking to the men while they prepare their formals, polish their boots and light their cigars, Ruiz listens to them as they discuss the mental changes that happen while they get dressed and how impactful this part of the process is up to the final photo.
Ruiz plans to continue the series by taking more portraits of Leather Men and collecting their stories. As the series grows and evolves, so will the discussion and understanding of what it means to wear leather as a form of self-identification instead of just a sexual practice. The project will culminate in a book and multiple gallery showings. Ruiz hopes the project will become a time capsule that will keep the leather community’s rich history and traditions alive for a long time to come.
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