News + Features

Long Live the Queens: Aaron Jay Young Photo Book Q&A 

May 12, 2023

By Abbey Pleviak

Aaron Jay Young went from living in small-town Pennsylvania to working as a set photographer on RuPaul’s Drag Race in Los Angeles. It was his introduction to drag, which Young views as a powerful form of artistry and self-expression that is vital for representation and visibility of queer folks. 

Young’s debut photography book Queen from Padlock Publishing, which contains over 125 images from RuPaul’s DragCon, grew out of his love for the artform. He hopes it will help make a positive impact for queer people in these times when political efforts are being made to repress and limit drag performances.

A portion of all proceeds from pre-orders of Queen will be donated to the ACLU Foundation’s Drag Defense Fund, in support of LGBTQIA+ rights to self-expression in drag performance. 

[Read: How to Build an LGBTQ+ Inclusive Photo Business] 

Aaron Jay Young

How did you get involved in DragCon?  

Back in 2010, I was the set photographer on RuPaul’s Drag Race. This was my introduction to drag as I had recently moved to Los Angeles from a small town in Pennsylvania. I worked on Drag Race for three years and grew to love the art form of drag and all that it represents. When I learned about the first DragCon happening I knew it could be a unique opportunity to capture a lot of different queens all in one place. The first year we had a booth, and while it was a lot of fun, we had a hard time bringing people to our booth to be photographed. So, it was the next year that I had the idea to create a sort of roaming set-up where we would have a backdrop on a rolling stand and someone operating the light. That way, we could go to the queens’ booths and photograph all over the convention center.  

© Aaron Jay Young

What is it like being at DragCon, and why is it important?  

DragCon feels like a magical place where everybody is accepted no matter who you are. It’s a place where people can come to meet their favorite queens, but on a deeper level, it’s a place where people can feel safe being themselves, which is so important more than ever in today’s climate. I always think of my younger self and what it might have been like if I had a place like this to go to see that as a queer kid, I wasn’t all alone in the world. There were lots of people just like me. Now, as I get older, I feel it’s so important to show up for the younger generations, so they know it’s ok to be exactly who they are. There are people out there who will truly see them and honor their authenticity.  

© Aaron Jay Young

What, for you, have been the most satisfying and compelling parts of this project?  

There are a couple of things that have been satisfying for me. When I started doing this project, I hadn’t seen many queens depicted in this way. I usually saw pictures that played up the persona aspect of who they are in drag – often lighthearted and comical. With this project, I wanted to capture them in a way that not only showed the incredible artistry of what they do, but also captured their more serious side – something that captured the energy of who they are underneath the drag and showed their humanity.  

Along with this, we often would incorporate some of the fans into the photographs which added another layer of who some of these queens are in today’s world as celebrities.  

© Aaron Jay Young

What impact do you hope your book will have?  

I think this book is needed more than ever right now as we’ve seen a growing political effort to discriminate against the drag community and the trans community. I hope this book is looked at as proof that us queer people are powerful humans who will rise to the occasion, and we aren’t going anywhere. I hope it breaks down some of those discriminatory barriers and helps people see these folks as humans who are deserving of dignity and respect and every human right that anyone else has. I hope it helps someone feel a little less alone and see that they are beautiful as they are. I hope that it shows the world the incredible artists these humans are. 

© Aaron Jay Young

What lighting did you use to capture these shots? 

For all the photos in this book, we used a single strobe with a large, soft modifier (Elinchrom 53-inch octabox or medium Photek Softlighter) to light our subjects, mixed with the ambient light in the room. I would always have an assistant operating the light, so we could quickly make adjustments as needed. 

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