Leonidas Enetanya: The Monét Archives

2020 Alexia Grant student winner

What I want to create isn’t merely a photo series documenting the spectacle of ballroom. I want to create a series of intimate portraits and candid moments in the lives of the queer/trans Black and Brown men and women who participate in ballroom, contrasting life behind the scenes with their personas at the balls. The main subjects will be various members of The House of Monét.

Over the course of the next six months to a year, as my relationship with the Monéts develops, I’ll document the memories I make with them and capture the essence of the people I get to know, while sharing their wisdom, illuminating our struggles and reflecting on our experiences. Through the connections I make, I’ll gradually become familiar with all the facets of this underground world I’ve come to be part of.

“Family” isn’t a word I use lightly. All six years I was in foster care, I was sent from one placement to another. But none were my home. I’ve been searching my whole life for a place I can call that, people worthy of the title “family.” The mother and father of the house of Monét offered me what I thought I’d never find; a community amongst whom I could feel embraced, appreciated and understood. I’m a member of the Monét family now. But what does that mean? That’s what I’m gonna find out. I want to understand what unites them. By understanding this community, I can better understand myself, and help people outside the community understand us, for the benefit and betterment of us all.

Society needs to see our humanity. Too many people are blind to it. Someone has to show them. Who better than me? Through my camera and writing, my subjects will be able to see themselves and be seen in a way they couldn’t otherwise, and with this project, I can raise awareness of our perennial plight, promote empathy, and fight transphobia during this revolutionary chapter in Black/LGBTQ history.

I need a camera that can keep up with the ceaseless flow of life. My current camera is painfully inadequate for the kind of photography I most want to do. I’m hindered by what I lack, and this grant can remove the fetters pinning me down and help me reach my potential as a photographer. There were so many more moments I would’ve captured had my camera allowed me to, moments I mourn not being able to include here. What I want is to be able to capture those moments the way I want to remember them for the rest of my life. It’s frustrating when I’m unable to do that because I’m limited by my camera and the few conditions it works well in. The money this grant provides would more than suffice to remove those limitations and open the door to the future I envision for myself. 

Papa and Mama Monét.

For most of my life I’ve been an orphan, all alone in the world. Then fate introduced me to these two. They took me into their house, welcomed me into their family. The same day I’d given up on ever finding what my soul was starving for—love, connection, belonging—they appeared and gave me it all. The moments we shared will make precious memories. The mother of the house of Monét was the first connection I made with someone Black and trans like me. Not even two months have passed since then and already so much has happened. Our paths crossed one hot August afternoon at a BLM protest in front of City Hall, a short walk from where I live. I couldn’t have known when I woke up that day that it would be the start of a new era in my life.

Needles and drug bottles

The bags where I dispose of my hormone injection needles and syringes. I’ve been on HRT for almost three years now. Every syringe I used is pictured here. I’ve had to stab myself once a week with a needle so my body reflects my gender. It never gets easier. Sometimes it really hurts. I hate doing it. I wish I didn’t have to. But I will, for the rest of my life. I couldn’t live without it. It’s like a vital medicine. The day it runs out is the day I die. We trans men and women endure so much more than this physical pain to be ourselves.

A Black woman in a parking lot

A warm-up shot of my house sibling before our casual photoshoot.

Papa Monét from the side

Conversation between Father Monét and I flowed easily from one thing to another, that night I had dinner with him, Mother Monét and a house sibling. He helped make a hearty chicken and potato stew for us. While we sat on the couch and food cooked on the stove, within the space of 10-20 minutes we had gone from talking excitedly about music and Bruce Lee to reflecting somberly on our childhood experiences. I remember being astonished by all the uncanny coincidences between us. Astonished, because for so much of my life I believed there was no one I could connect meaningfully to. Or if there was, I would never meet them. The person sitting across from me, pictured here, continues to disprove this. 

Papa Monét

A portrait of the father of the House of Monét, taken the day of the Bully Ball. I was at the House headquarters, the home of a fellow Monét, when I noticed the sun coming out. It had been cloudy until that moment, and the rain was still drizzling. The appearance of the sun combined with the light rain and dense clouds meant that outside were rare photographic opportunities, I sensed. So I climbed out the window hoping to find a rainbow or something, and captured this. 

Mama and Papa Monét hugging.

It was the day of the Bully Ball, what would be my first one. Mama and Papa Monét had arrived in their car. I discovered them outside when I left in search of rare photographic moments in the sun and rain, what I like to call “rainbow weather.” As I approached, I began taking candid shots of them from afar. The photos I like most are the ones where my subjects aren’t “posing” or giving performances of themselves. The more authentic, the better. By the time I took this one they noticed me, in the middle of a warm hug.

Pictured are several of the Monéts preparing to make a grand entrance at The Bully Ball. We all got out of our cars, gathered in the parking lot, and Mother Monét briefly explained to us how we should position ourselves. Then everyone strutted double file towards the park where everyone was waiting. The ball couldn’t start until the Monéts had arrived.

Mother Monét collapsed on the ground more than once that day in laughter. I don’t know what was so funny. It’s something special though, to have people in your life who can make you feel that way.

Mother Monét teaching hand performance to a couple new faces during a picnic at the park as the sun set behind us.

A house sibling rehearsing their walk for Mother Monét. They were giving a masculine performance, then switched to a femme one. So far I’d only seen femme performances. Theirs was the first masculine performance I’d seen, and I was inspired. After that, I had a clearer idea of what I wanted to do for my first performance, somewhere in the not too distant future.

We had just gone through the drive thru of Rancho Bravo in search of something appetizing, finding nothing of the sort on the menu, and were stopped in the middle of the empty parking lot when I saw the BLM/ACAB-themed graffiti all over the surrounding walls and was inspired to take photos there. After taking a few, my house sibling returned to the car to shut the door and accidentally locked the keys in, stranding us behind Rancho Bravo while Mother Monét went home to find something to open the door with. This is my house sibling on the phone with a locksmith, probably after hearing how much one costs.

About Leonidas Enetanya:

Before I discovered my passion for photography, I lived as a recluse. I learned early in life that people are a source of pain and disappointment and by the time I aged out of foster care, I’d decided that I was better off alone. For years I cut myself off from people, utterly disconnected from the outside world. I took shelter in my inner world, where my light had been extinguished and infinite darkness reigned. 

It must’ve been a particularly beautiful day when I first felt the urge to go outside with my camera. Those first photos sprouted a seed inside me I didn’t know was there. Once this potential was evident, I began to feed it, not knowing what it would grow into, but excited to find out. I didn’t choose to be a photographer, just as a seed doesn’t choose what it becomes. It was a latent possibility that, with cultivation, became a reality. 

I only went outside for two reasons: to buy groceries or to take photos. The faces of my city were a homogenous blur that I willingly overlooked, seeking my next photo in any other direction than the eyes of another. After wandering aimlessly like this for a year, I realized that from the position of a detached observer I couldn’t capture what I wanted. For that, I required human connection, something I’d convinced myself I didn’t want or need, and had come to believe was outside my capacity to experience. 

The world is a mirror. Through my camera, it appeared cold and distant. Increasingly dissatisfied with this, I thought, “What I want is beyond my reach, beyond the walls erected to protect me. I’m wandering around looking for substitutes, but there’s nothing that can replace it.” I recognized then that I would only find what I wanted to capture most in the one place I refused to look. 

But what was “it” that I sought, exactly? Something inside a person that can be seen through them, yet is itself transparent. The most beautiful human feature: The unmasked “soul.” 

Beneath the façade of every person is a separate world. It’s these invisible inner worlds, less so than the external world we share, that I yearn to explore. Photos can show you who you are in a way a mirror can’t. With my camera, I like to catch emotions naked. I have no interest in pretenses or personas, the countless costumes people wear. I want to expose the person inside. Candid glimpses of this hidden essence, what’s revealed when the mask slips—these are the rare gems I consider treasure. 

Now, looking through the photos I took that won The Alexia Student Grant, I notice the light in my subjects, friends I couldn’t imagine myself having just months ago. And in the reflection of their smiles, I see traces of the light I lost.