Photographing Black, Female, HIV Positive Power

Photographs: Courtesy of Kia LaBeija.
Kia LaBeija, real name Kia Michelle Benbow, is many things: a photographer, a dancer, an activist; a queer, black female who was born HIV positive. Her self-portraiture, on which she’s been working over the past four years, seeks to capture the many sides of her character, the stories she has to tell, and the political intersections of her identity. In each shot, she reinvents herself with costume, light and poise, creating a catalogue of glamorous, cinematic images in which she sometimes appears powerful, and other times vulnerable.

Growing up in Hell's Kitchen, New York City, Kia first started taking photos in high school after her brother gifted her a Nikon One Shot. Going on to study dance, she took her camera on tour with her to Europe, where she began to shoot portraits of the other dancers, and head shots. These latter, she says, “could be boring, but are a difficult skill for the people on both sides of the camera”, meaning they were good training. After a stint in L.A., Kia returned to her native New York to briefly study photography at the Parsons School of Design. There, her teacher told her she had a good eye but needed to “dig a little deeper”.

Holding onto that thought, Kia became involved with Visual AIDS while in her early 20s. The organisation archives art by people who have died of AIDS-related illness; it's also a platform for HIV positive artists to upload their own work, whatever the medium, and receive grants or become involved in art shows and panel discussions on the topic. Kia uploaded a self-portrait, which was immediately selected for one of Visual AIDS’ shows – and so began an introspective journey into her past, as seen through the camera’s lens.

A lot of Kia’s work focusses on memory, particularly that of her mother, the activist Kwan Bennett, who passed away in 2004. Kia has followed in her mother’s footsteps, using her art to raise awareness around HIV and redefine expectations of what a person living with HIV looks like. In particular, her portrait series 24 was intended to capture a black, positive, female body in a way that you wouldn’t normally see in AIDS organisations' imagery or in the public health warnings found on billboards or subway ads.

Last year, the work was featured as part of Art AIDS America, a group exhibition looking at the legacy and contemporary work of various artists exploring the theme of AIDS. Kia was disappointed to be the only black woman among the 107 artists involved, but agreed to show her work nonetheless (“or else there wouldn’t be a black woman featured at all”). She maintains that people of colour are just not represented in the story of AIDS – “it’s a white, gay man’s story" – and whenever she’s on a panel about it she’s usually the only person of colour, the only woman and, of course, the only person on the panel born with HIV.

Ahead, Kia kindly shares 10 of her self-portraits with Refinery29, and explains how they reflect various stages of her life. Ever articulate, both verbally and visually, the 26-year-old artist also discusses how her background as a dancer (particularly in voguing) influences her compositions, and who her biggest role models are.
1 of 10
Photographs: Courtesy of Kia LaBeija.
In My Room

This is the first self-portrait I did. I’m sitting in my bedroom, in my underwear: a red bra and red panties, looking into the camera. I uploaded it to the Visual AIDS website and at the same time was taking a class at The New School – it turned out my teacher was curating a show for Visual AIDS and he was intrigued by the picture, so he said he’d like to feature it. He said he could start to see my experience from this photograph. And I thought, ‘Maybe if someone’s interested in my story, this context [portraiture, as a positive person], I’ll continue to make work with this idea.’
2 of 10
Photographs: Courtesy of Kia LaBeija.
Mourning Sickness

I produced this and the photo "Kia and Mommy" on the same day. I was feeling very creative. I wanted the first image to be in my bathroom because I wanted to talk about something really personal. It’s about the side-effects of the HIV medication that I have to take, especially when I change it up. It’s thinking about my experience in high school, when I was sick in the mornings before class. I wanted to look at it like a Disney cartoon, or something theatrical. It was also a play on the word 'mourning' because when I lost my mother I spent a lot of time on the floor of that bathroom, crying.
3 of 10
Photographs: Courtesy of Kia LaBeija.
Kia And Mommy

There was a moment I had, thinking about how I was doing all these portraits, and I thought ‘The one person I would love to photograph is not here anymore, and that’s my mother’. So I took my favourite photo of her and photographed myself with it on the floor of the bedroom I’d been in for 24 years. I was 24 years old, and it was on the 24th floor. That’s why I titled the series 24. I started posting about it on the internet and got so much response. I hadn’t been super vocal about my life and some people didn’t even know that I was positive. But people were so incredibly supportive of the work.
4 of 10
Photographs: Courtesy of Kia LaBeija.
Swan Lake

Ah, "Swan Lake" – it’s a good one. I took it, once again, in my room. I was being interviewed for a documentary about HIV and it was incredibly scary 'cos they said, ‘Can we film you making a portrait?’ So I put on a beautiful dress and photographed myself in the window of my apartment. I called it "Swan Lake" because I used to go see the ballet with my mum and I always wanted to be a ballerina, so it reminded me of that.

I think all of the photos I take relate to me being a dancer in some way. There’s such a deep connection between voguing and being photographed, because voguing is based on poses you’d use when getting your picture taken. I feel like every picture I take has a relationship to my movement and dance, because it’s me posing. Each pose is very carefully constructed because I want to convey something to the camera and always have something particular in mind to tell a very specific story, which is my story.
5 of 10
Photographs: Courtesy of Kia LaBeija.
The First Ten Years

I took this on the 10th anniversary of my mother’s death. I was playing dress-up in my mother’s wedding dress, and I had this drawer of her personal belongings; ID, address book, rings. I decided to deal with them, so I took everything in the drawer, threw it to the ground and started to go through it. I captured the moment and added it to the series.
6 of 10
Photographs: Courtesy of Kia LaBeija.
Mimi's Last Dance

This is a photograph I took this year when I had a moment of inspiration. I think I understood it more after the fact. The name Mimi comes from the musical Rent. I’ve always been aware of my HIV positive status but it’s something I kept to myself when I was much younger. I went to a performing arts school and they took us to see Rent in 7th grade. I had read it was an adaptation of La Bohème but about HIV, but I didn’t know much about the context.

I remember the character Mimi coming out and she’s HIV positive. It was the first time I saw a character that was brown-skinned like me, with curly hair like me, full of life, singing, and living with HIV. I felt very connected. I didn’t have any support system to talk about these things after my mum passed away, so I just bought the soundtrack and I would listen to it over and over. The character deals with drug use and the feeling of not being able to be loved – so not necessarily what you want a 12-year-old to look up to, as a brown-skinned woman with HIV. But I based my wardrobe on that character for years – latex, cheetah print, everything.

As I became of a sexual age I was very lost because I didn’t have anyone to guide me on what does it mean to navigate your sexuality living with HIV. I was a young, attractive female with something the world told me was unattractive, dirty, toxic, tainted. The first boyfriend I had knew my status but the second person... I didn’t know how to tell them, and that became very problematic because we were very safe but this person was very upset about it when they found out. That scarred me for a long time, and that made me afraid of dating.

When you experience that violence, once you’ve told someone something so personal, it can be hard to open up again. But over time I learnt the best way to deal for me was to be open about it right away. So when I created the picture I titled it "Mimi’s Last Dance" because I was feeling ready to let go of that fear and the things that had happened to me in the past that had sent me into a bit of a downward spiral. It was taken on my balcony in honour of how Mimi appears on her balcony in Rent.
7 of 10
Photographs: Courtesy of Kia LaBeija.

Eleven is a piece I created last year, on the anniversary of the day my mother passed. It had been eleven years. I had the image in mind for a really long time. I was going to create it for Art AIDS America, which ended up not happening. They used other images from the series but not this, which was a bit devastating.

I took the photo in my doctor’s office, and the doctor is in the image. It’s the same office I’ve been going to since I was 4 years old. A few things are happening. I’m sitting in my dress which I wore to my prom, which is a statement in itself because, as a child born with HIV, I wasn’t expected to make it as far as my high school prom. I was born in 1990, and medication that put you on a regimen that was expected to save your life didn’t come around until, like, 1996, so people weren’t sure babies with HIV of my age would survive.

The other thing is that I’m taking my place on the doctor’s bed because it’s the anniversary of my mother’s death, and this was her bed and her doctor, too. And the third thing is the doctor taking the blood in real time. I go to the doctor all the time, to check my CD4 count, see how my viral load is doing. Am I undetectable? How are my organs doing? It’s a method of self-care, but one that not many people get to see.
8 of 10
Photographs: Courtesy of Kia LaBeija.
Warren's Jungle

That’s my dad’s room. The thing about my father is, I don’t talk about him as much as my mother. So I took that picture to get a peep at his world. You can begin to understand what’s going on if you look at the background, what’s on the shelf, on the couch, on the bed. It’s not just about me, it’s about the space I’m in and the relationship to the space. My father is supportive and loves me very much but we have communication issues we’re still working through, and the picture is addressing that. "Warren’s Jungle" is an attempt to get to know the brain of my father.
9 of 10
Photographs: Courtesy of Kia LaBeija.
Searching For The Sweet Life

I was commissioned to take this photo by the Studio Museum Harlem. They commission postcards and asked me to to participate by creating one work around Harlem. So it’s not a part of my 24 series but a separate piece.

I was thinking about how I would go to Harlem as a child to visit my great aunts, so I went to see one of them, and interviewed her about her experiences of Harlem. She told me about her move in the great migration from the South to the North, when a lot of black people relocated for opportunity. She had super famous neighbours like [the jazz composer] Duke Ellington, and she used to serve the poet Langston Hughes at her restaurant. Her stories were amazing.

The image is a self-portrait of me with my great aunt’s suitcase. I wanted the feeling to be very early morning, when you arrive in New York searching for opportunity. You can see the “For Sale” sign next to the building, which is talking about how a lot of these areas now are becoming gentrified. I originally took a photo at my aunt’s old place but then I was walking home and saw the way the light was hitting this brownstone up in Sugar Hill, and this became the final shot. I was happy to create the work because it was a way for me to explore my own blackness, or relationship to things that were culturally black.
10 of 10
Photographs: Courtesy of Kia LaBeija.
Grandmother Willow Tree

I took this image two summers ago, in 2014. It’s a portrait of me with this willow tree in Central Park that I used to go to with my mum and had done since I was a small child. We loved the movie Pocahontas, and this tree we used to call Grandmother Willow Tree because it looked like the tree in the movie. When my grandmother died we put her ashes there, and when my mother died we put her ashes there, too. The tree is almost like a tombstone.

This summer I travelled in Europe and when I came back I went to Central Park. I was with my girlfriend and her friends and I said, ‘I want to introduce you to my mum, I feel like this is the last physical piece I have of her’. But when I went to see the tree I was shocked to see they had cut it down. I just lost it. I was so upset. I couldn’t believe they had cut this tree down. It was my place to mourn my mother and grandmother and it was gone. I fell to the ground and I was crying and it started to rain and I lay there for a moment and everyone gave me some time, and then the sun came out and hit my face and reminded me that you can’t hold onto physical things, everything changes and everything evolves. Now the photo is just a memory of a special place for me, a place that doesn’t exist any more.