Promises to Keep
by Alina Oswald

Decades ago, Mike Ruiz made himself a promise. That, if life were to give him the opportunity to help others, he’d take the first chance to do just that. Yet, at the time, being a teenager, he had no idea what that actually meant. 

Years later, when he was twenty-eight, he found a Canon EOS camera under his Christmas tree. It was a present from his friend, Roberto Ycaza. Ruiz still remembers picking up that camera and checking it out. Then, as he started photographing, he had an epiphany. He realized that photography was another way for him to communicate and express himself, and he became obsessed with it. 

Michael D’arinzio, digital photography, 11 by 14. From Pretty Masculine (2011). © All rights reserved

To this day, Mike Ruiz is still grateful to his friend for giving him that camera. To this day, being “a creature of habit,” he is still a Canon shooter.  

Nowadays, Mike Ruiz’s name resonates with fans of shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and America’s Next Top Model (and one of its sister shows, Canada’s Next Top Model). Over the years, he has captured iconic portraits of celebrities such as Prince, Betty White, Queen Latifah, Alan Cumming, and Taraji P. Henson; has made various TV appearances; and directed music videos for artists like Kelly Rowland and Vanessa Williams. Recently, Ruiz was named the creative director and principal photographer for L’Officiel Fashion Book Australia, L’Officiel Fashion Book Monte Carlo, and Photobook Magazine.

Yet all along the way, Mike Ruiz has never forgotten the promise that he made to his teenage self, all those years ago. And he used his camera, talent, and vision to give back. As a result, he has supported various organizations such as The Trevor Project, It Gets Better Project, and Live Out Loud. He is also an honorary board member of the Let There Be Hope research foundation.

Rodney Santiago, digital photography, 11 by 14. From Pretty Masculine (2011). © All rights reserved

Readers of A&U might remember Ruiz’s breathtaking photography in the “PrEP Heroes” article [A&U, July 2015] highlighting the Housing Works promotional campaign with the same name. “PrEP Heroes was [a] very creative [experience],” Mike Ruiz recalls when we chat on Zoom. “My friend, Jack Mackenroth [A&U, November 2010], who’s always been very outspoken about his HIV status——asked me to do this campaign. It was right up my alley with the body painting, and the whole surreal, fantasy aspect of it. So, [photographing it] was gratifying, creatively. And also, I was able to do something positive for the community.”

Over the years, Mike Ruiz has photographed various promotional campaigns to support organizations that make a difference in many people’s lives. Among many others, he partnered with RÖKK Vodka to photograph a campaign for GLAAD. He donated artwork. And he also donated all proceeds from his coffee table book, Pretty Masculine, to GMHC. 

Also, for several years, Mike Ruiz has used his birthday and birthday party as a fundraising opportunity for The Ali Forney Center. He’d get a venue and an event producer to create as much awareness as possible for the organization. That’s because its mission——to help marginalized and homeless LGBTQ+ youth——resonates with the photographer. “I wish I had a resource like that when I was [a teenager] and struggling…. So, I really admire what they do and I support them.” 

Mike Ruiz grew up in the suburbs of Montreal. In 1981 he was only seventeen when he heard about GRID. “In hindsight, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency is a disturbing name for a disease,” he reflects. “It was alarming, but I was young and naïve, and, to a certain extent, in denial that I had to worry about it.”

It wasn’t until a few years later, when more and more people started getting sick and dying, that he realized that the AIDS crisis was “serious” and that it was going to be “devastating.” Then, in 1987, when he moved to New York City, Ruiz started seeing, firsthand, the direct effects of the crisis. 

Because he came of age at the height of the AIDS crisis, he was always very cautious and kept himself safe. Yet, because of the pandemic, he’d always feel surrounded by a consuming “feeling of impending doom,” by a fear that he’d “fall victim” to the virus. And so, he’d tell himself that he had a lot of living still to do, in order to survive and motivate himself to push forward. 

“I haven’t really thought about how [the HIV/AIDS crisis] has directly affected me creatively,” Ruiz comments. “Looking at my early work I realize that it was basically a manifestation of my very rich fantasy life that I had as a child and a teenager. I realize that all the trauma that I’ve endured in my life has resulted in me having this need to create an alternate reality,” Ruiz comments. 

It wasn’t until he started photographing that he discovered “a way to channel all of that angst,” and use his work as “a form of escapism,” which, in turn, became a vehicle to his success. 

In so many ways, his photography work——surreal, super glossy, and aspirational——still remains “a form of escapism” for the artist. At the same time, it offers us, the viewers, that much needed dare-to-dream kind of moment. 

That doesn’t mean that the photographer doesn’t remain acutely aware of everything, all the crises, happening in real time, all around the world. Quite the contrary.

To this day, Mike Ruiz doesn’t take anything for granted and continues to push forward and to use his photography work to help others and give back. “I find it really difficult to just kick back, you know,” he says. “There are so many things that I want to do and this feeling that there may not be a tomorrow has led me to voraciously devour life and want to leave a legacy.”

He calls the current pandemic his “reset button”: “I had eighteen months of not having to worry about hustling, but I just still feel like there’s so much stuff that I want to do, so much stuff that I don’t even know about yet that I’m going to want to do.” 

Emerging from the recent COVID quarantine, Mike Ruiz started working on a new photography project——The Leathermen Project——which explores the leather community, and how its culture and history was, at least in part, shaped by the early AIDS crisis. Images from this particular body of work will be featured in several exhibitions opening this summer at the Tom of Finland Foundation, in Los Angeles; the Leather Archives and Museum, in Chicago; and at the Academy Social Club, in San Francisco. 

Working on The Leathermen Project has allowed the photographer not only to better understand the culture and history, but also the effects the AIDS crisis has had on the leather community. “Community service has been a big part of the leather community,” Ruiz explains. There’s a whole hierarchy system, and to go up in the hierarchy is, in part, based on what members can give to the community. And that’s something that resonated with the photographer. “I found that a lot of these guys are decent human beings. But, because of their sex-positive attitude, which dates back to the sixties and seventies, unfortunately, they got the brunt of the AIDS crisis. I have a lot of admiration for everything that these guys went through, directly related to the AIDS crisis.”

Some of the active Leathermen, now in their sixties and seventies, have a lot of stories to tell. They are inspiring stories of survival, of caring for friends and loved ones when nobody else would.

They are stories that young individuals should hear today, so that they can truly appreciate all the progress that’s been made in the fight against HIV/AIDS, in the fight for equal rights. “…But I don’t feel that the burden of how horrific the AIDS crisis was is theirs to carry,” Ruiz says, mentioning the young generation. “Right now, there’s the war in Ukraine, there’s a [new] pandemic, global warming…they have enough to worry about,” he adds. 

And yet, as the older generation is about to pass the baton to a younger one, Mike Ruiz wants to ensure that the LGBTQ+ history is being preserved. Hence, he uses his photography to build lasting intergenerational bridges in the community. 

Currently, Mike Ruiz is working on releasing several Leathermen portraits as NFTs, as a way to bring together two generations. Active leathermen get to discover new ways of experiencing and exploring images; and young individuals have a chance to connect with members of the leather community and learn more about its history and culture. Thus, along the way, through his photography work, Mike Ruiz brings the history of the LGBTQ+ community into today’s metaverse, hence, preserving its legacy. 

Find out more about Mike Ruiz’s work by visiting online at www.mikeruiz.com. Follow him on social media, on Twitter @mikeruiz1 and Instagram @mikeruizone, for updates about his live NFT talks and other related events.


Note: Follow the link below for Mike Ruiz’s Leathermen NFTs collection, available starting June 5: https://rarible.com/leathermen/items

Alina Oswald, Arts Editor of A&U, is a writer, photographer, and educator based in the New York City area. She’s also the new Arts Editor of Out IN Jersey Magazine. Contact her online at alinaoswald.com.