Hotspots has interviewed and featured New Jersey based photographer Mike Ruiz beautiful images quite a few times. Mike who has been featured on America’s and Canada’s Next Top Model, RuPaul’s Drag Race, along with dozens of other television appearances, has started an ongoing series to highlight the beauty & diversity of the leather community to show that it’s not about just wearing leather or kinky sex.

Ruiz had an open call in October of 2021 to leather men of all ages, races, sizes and backgrounds to appear in this series. After reaching out to members of the community through social media and word of mouth, many men volunteered, seeing the importance of sharing their love of leather and what it means to them.

During his travels, meeting, and bonding with these men Ruiz saw how free and empowered they are which granted him power to let go of a lot of his own personal hang-ups about sex and relationships. Much of the project happens while the camera is sat down. Talking to the men while they prepare their formals, polish their boots and light their cigars, Ruiz listens to them as they discuss the mental changes that happen while they get dressed and how impactful this part of the process really is to the final image that is presented.

We spoke with Mike Ruiz about his new project.

What inspired out to begin this project?

This project was born out of my deep desire to explore a part of myself that has been underlying my entire life. After a year of pandemic-induced introspection, I realized that I had been denying a part of myself mostly out of self-imposed shame. You see, as a gay man, I’ve lived through the toxic shame of being gay, being attracted to men, having sex with men not to mention body shame. I decided that once I was vaccinated, I would explore these things without embarrassment or apprehension.  And I did! I sought out ways to experience a sexual liberation that I hadn’t known before which included kink. Not only was it intoxicating, but it was also actually therapeutic.  From that I was introduced to the leather community and some of its history. I discovered that being a leather man wasn’t only about wearing leather or kinky sex. It’s about a community of men who form a very strong brotherhood with a rich history rooted in community service and inclusion dating back to the 60s. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know. I figured the only way to get an accurate account was to go to the sources. I wanted to do something that would satisfy my personal interests and celebrate these men in the process. That’s when The Leathermen Mike Ruiz Project was born.

What is it about leather and Leathermen that is so attractive/inspiring to you?

To me, it/they denote sexual freedom and authority. There is something raw and carnal about the uniform and what it represents. Much like many gay men, I’ve always been hugely inspired by the hyper masculine aesthetic of Tom Of Finland’s art. Not only have I tried to adopt it for myself, but it’s manifested in my work as a photographer from the earliest days of my career. Having come of age in the 80s, I understood the need to present as hyper-masculine as  a way to compensate for being gay but as much as I was turned on by the leather man aesthetic, I was too riddled with shame about sex to embrace it. I was aroused by it but was terrified of it. Arousal ultimately won that internal struggle at the age of 56 and now I’m consumed by it! Fortunately, I can work out a lot of my stuff through my work. Photographing all these men is so satisfying to me in so many ways beyond creative gratification.

How were you able to find so many well-respected men from the leather community to participate in your project?

It was a combination of throwing out a broad net by making a post on social media and the help and guidance of a couple of well-respected Leathermen whom I had befriended prior embarking on this project.

How has this project impacted you personally?

When I started this, I could never have anticipated how personal it would become. Firstly, I’ve met and bonded with some incredible men. Also, by seeing how free and empowered they are its empowering to me. As this progresses it’s helping me let go of a lot of hang ups that I’ve had about sex and relationships. Also, so many of the men have been so supportive and understanding of my self-exploration journey.

How do you think this project is impacting the men you are photographing?

I couldn’t tell you. You might have to ask them. What I have observed, however, is how it’s created a network of Leathermen who are only connected by this project. Unwittingly being that conduit is really gratifying for me. Also, I’ve been getting a lot of really heartfelt emails form leather men from around the world telling me how powerful it is to see men like them being represented.

 What will the final result be from this project?

I would like to do a book and a gallery show or two, both of which seem very likely at this point. Who knows what else will come from this? I hope that this project will become a time capsule that will keep the leather community’s rich history alive for a long time to come. As it progresses, so many men are wanting to participate. As long as there is interest, I will keep going.

You are staunch animal activist. How do you reconcile your advocacy for animals and leather?

It is possible to have very diverse interests simultaneously. One does not preclude the other. I’m a complex person with varied ideals, interests, and proclivities. I’m hoping that they will all converge conflict free.  Also, It’s not only about the wardrobe for me. I’m drawn mostly to the mindset and the approach to living and loving.

What do you hope to accomplish with this project?

Ultimately, I’m hoping to shine more light on a beautiful community that has contributed so much to LGBTQ history.