Luna Luis Ortiz was born into art with a father whom had a fondness for photography in New York City 1972. Ortiz always had a flair for arts with drawing and painting. In 1986, he was infected with HIV at the age of 14 from his first sexual experience. Thereafter he picked up one of his father’s cameras and began the birth of his self-portraits as a way to leave images for the family as a remembrance and before he became the images of AIDS of the 1980’s.
In the late 1980’s Ortiz was a part of New York’s ballroom voguing scene and the club kids scene where his creativity for the arts flourished especially as a photographer. In 1988, he began his journey as an HIV awareness spokesperson for youth living with HIV at the Hetrick- Martin Institute. Over the years Ortiz has dedicated his life to HIV prevention and AIDS awareness for people around the world.
Today, Ortiz continues to inspire and empower youth of color around the world with his story of survival with living with HIV for 30 years. His passions as a father of the House of Khan (whose members compete in the voguing competitions at the balls) give him the opportunity to continue to guide and support young people from the LGBT experience with love, compassion and care.
You have been dealing with HIV since a very young age. How difficult was it for you and how did photography help you?
My name is Luna Luis Ortiz; I have been living with HIV since 1986. I was infected at the age of 14, after having my first sexual experience. It was at this time that I picked up a camera and began taking self-portraits because I was trying to leave images to my mom and dad of how I looked before I would be ravished by AIDS. These were uncertain times so I really thought I would get ill and die because that is what happened back in those days. I truly believe that art saved my life. Photography became sort of a voice I didn’t have. I was able to finally express myself creatively, so for the last 30 years I’ve been photographing people I love. I like to think that photography got in the way of my AIDS.
How do you choose your models? Are they usually your friends or strangers? And what makes you choose someone to photograph them?
I mainly photograph my friends but not just any friend; I have to feel something deep inside me to photograph someone. Of course as a photographer I can shoot anyone but if you want a beautifully expressive image then I have to feel connected. Which is why most of my images are personal, sensual and sometimes haunting because of the connection, I can feel what they’re giving me and sometimes it’s sex.
How has your work changed through the years? If you compare your first pictures to pictures you take now, what will be the differences?
I love portraits. I will do portraits until I die. There is something special about getting that close to someone. I began with self-portraits and ended up doing thousands of portraits of my friends and family over the years. I don’t think it’s changed much except that lately I’ve been interested in doing portraits of people at the Vogue Balls. This is different for me since I like to shoot in closed rooms and I like to control the environment and lighting. At balls, I am not in control of anything. Things just happen. It’s performance and drama, everything I love to shoot. I’ve been a part of the Vogue balls since 1988 so in this scene I am a respected legend. There are many layers to Luna. And yes, I know how to vogue.
Are there any people and artists that have inspired you as a person and photographer?
I have so many people who inspired me. My first inspiration was George Hurrell. He is my photography God. I wanted to shoot everyone like he shot the Golden Age of Hollywood. The dramatic lighting is everything. It’s like painting with light. Gorgeous. Josef von Sternberg also influenced me. I was in love with the way he filmed Marlene Dietrich, the shadows and light, the butterfly shadow under the nose and the hollow cheekbones. I wish people really looked like that. Shedrich Williames was a wonderful friend and he was a brilliant photographer, he has work in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I also love Tseng Kwong Chi, Peter Hujar, Nan Goldin, James Van Der Zee, Robert Mapplethorpe, Chantal Regnault, Richard Avedon, Gerard H. Gaskin, Gordon Parks, David LaChapelle and Sally Mann. The list is long… I had the privilege of interning for David LaChapelle and working on a project with Nan Goldin around the time she had the huge Whitney Museum exhibition. Nan liked my work. I was so happy she wrote my letter of admissions when I was going to School of Visual Arts back in 1995. She’s a great woman.
If you could choose to work on a project with someone, dead or alive, who would you choose and why?
It’s too obvious but I would have loved to work on a project with George Hurrell and Josef von Sternberg involving Marlene Dietrich as the subject. They’re my 3 favorite people in film and photography history. That would have been the ultimate collaboration. I also would have liked to be an intern for Robert Mapplethorpe. I think he would have liked me as a person.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am working on my ballroom portraits and on getting out more in terms of exhibiting my work. Visual AIDS has been wonderful throughout my photography career by getting me in galleries and museums. They’re my second family and a great team of dedicated people.