Kia LaBeija

WHENEVER I COME INTO A SPACE, I imagine what stories it has to tell. It’s vital that the locations I choose for my portraits have a strong history. I began this work out of my home in New York’s Hellz Kitchen five years ago, while I was studying at the New School. I was afraid of losing the apartment I grew up in, so I began to photograph it. I was only fourteen years old when my mother died from an AIDS-related illness. It changed something within me. It taught me that nothing is permanent.

When I was a girl I promised myself that I would be brave enough to tell my story. I understood the power of representation, and I wanted to make sure that the lives of children born with HIV could not be reduced to one sentence in a report about “mother-to-child transmission.” This promise culminated in a series of self-portraits titled “24,” which was both my age when the series began and the floor number of my apartment.

Each one of these photographs has its own life and story, carefully composed and staged to investigate a specific experience. The works in “24” are primarily focused on issues I faced growing up with HIV. I’ve taken real moments of suffering and turned them into powerful, beautiful images. It’s my way of leaving something solid on this earth—defeating death by reaching for immortality.

As a young girl, I was a master of dress-up. I was raised in the theater district, where neighbors would give me all sorts of costume pieces. I imagined I would grow up to be an actress but never dreamed I’d get to play the greatest role of all: myself. Of course, “myself” is a site of continual investigation and regeneration. I am Kia LaBeija in most of my photographs. I became a LaBeija when I joined the Iconic House of LaBeija in 2012. Nightlife and the house and ballroom community have offered me another kind of support, which is woven into my art.

I vogue in all of my photographs, using elements of fantasy and glamour that are part of the LaBeija history. Voguing is a style of cathartic movement or dance birthed by Black and Latinx LGBTQ communities in New York City. Its vocabulary resonates with my body in a way that no other style has. The term refers to poses in Vogue magazine, but it’s not only about posing: It’s about freedom and taking control of your own narrative. I am whoever I want to be when I vogue. My work began with my investigation of HIV, but that’s not where it ends. HIV does not define my art or who I am. This is only the start of my healing process. I’ve already lived such a colorful life, and I will continue to thrive: forever sitting pretty, standing strong, speaking up for myself.

—As told to Alex Fialho