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.