Raleigh, North Carolina commercial and editorial photographer Justin Kase Conder utilized his portrait skills while on assignment for a recent issue of local arts and culture publication, Walter Magazine. His editorial photography documented writer Billy Warden as he stepped into the heels of drag for his nine-page story, “A Diva is BORN.”
Justin started working with Walter Magazine in 2017, after making a cold call to Creative Director Laura Wall. After his portfolio was reviewed, Justin became one of the publication’s go-to photographers, with cover-worthy assignments.
You’ve seen those magazines that have 95% ads and two paragraphs worth of actual content. Walter Magazine is the antithesis of that and that’s one of the reasons I like working with them. It’s a symbiotic relationship; they offer interesting assignments that intrigue me.
Justin collaborated with writer Billy Warden in the past — in fact, they see each other most mornings while working out at the YMCA near downtown Raleigh. One morning, Billy shared that he pitched a story on drag to Ayn-Monique Klahre, editor of Walter Magazine. Soon after, Laura reached out to ask if Justin would photograph it.
Raleigh is a forward-thinking city, which Walter Magazine showcases. (There are more drag shows here than in Charlotte, which has a substantially larger population.)
Justin and Billy discussed the photo shoot over the phone, a few days prior to it. It was important for Justin to clarify who his primary subject would be, as Brandon Moore and Justin Burleyson would also be present. Each took on the role of being Billy’s drag mother as their respective alter egos: Kayla Lashay and Emory Starr.
Half of the images were created during their practice run at Brandon’s home, which Billy described in the article as a “gleaming mid-century ranch in South Raleigh, where the wardrobe room barely contains the riot of sequined gowns and headdresses.”
Drag queens – it doesn’t get more fun than that! But I will say, Kayla, the primary protagonist of the written story, is very serious about the work that she does. The article dives into how much money she spends on makeup and wardrobe, which Kayla makes herself. That’s impressive. I want to do justice to that. I want to show how much time, energy, and money she’s put into that process because it’s a tremendous amount.
The second set of images were taken at a drag show a week later on Halloween night, where Billy made his first public appearance as Debbie D. Lirious. Justin stayed from early afternoon to three in the morning because “the LGBTQ+ community knows how to party.”
When I was younger, I didn’t pick up the camera because I loved taking pictures. I picked it up because I wanted to work outside and meet different people every day. I wanted to have some autonomy. That’s what led me to editorial photography, and that’s why I love working with Walter Magazine.
More than anything, I was proud of the opportunity to tell that story as an ally of the LGBTQ+ community. What drives me as a photographer, even in my commercial work, is being able to connect with people, whether it’s a commercial or editorial project. Subjects often let their walls down so you can see into their world. While photographing for “A Diva is BORN,” I learned of the challenges and frustrations that come along with being a drag queen while on this assignment and I set out to do their story justice.
See more of Justin’s work on his website.
Writer: Billy Warden
Editor: Ayn-Monique Klahre
Creative Director: Laura Petrides Wall