Where were you born?
Where do you live now?
I live in a small rural town about 15 minutes from Princeton, NJ.
What’s your sign?
I’m a Capricorn and a textbook one at that.
When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I didn’t know what I wanted to do specifically but I knew that I wanted to be in show business in some capacity.
How did that transpose into working in photography?
I became a photographer quite haphazardly. I didn’t set out to become one, it sort of just happened. I was working as a model/waiter for a few years when, at the age of 28, I got a camera as a gift from a very good friend of mine. Up until that point, I was just coasting, working as a model, which did take me around the world. I credit those travels for my art and cultural education.
Once I received that camera, something magical happened. It became a conduit for self-expression that I wasn’t able to tap into prior. I instantly became consumed and obsessed with photographing everything in sight including architecture, still life, and people. I had some model friends whom I photographed who went on to show their agents the images that I took. The agents, in turn, asked me to photograph more models. I quickly developed a reputation for taking some pretty decent images. From there, I started getting requests from magazines to shoot fashion editorials. Once some of the magazine editorials began hitting the stands, I got a flurry of requests from ad agencies and other magazines. Before I knew it, I was in the thick of a blossoming career.
If you hadn’t gotten into photography what do you think you’d be doing right now?
I honestly don’t know. I tried so many things before tapping into my passion but nothing stuck. I was considering medicine early on, went to culinary school very briefly, even learned to fly small aircraft in hopes of becoming a pilot. Honestly, I had zero interest in any of it. I’m so incredibly grateful that I figured it out before the doors of opportunity closed on me.
What was your first memorable work as a photographer?
The first major gig that I got was shooting Rod Stewart’s CD cover for When We Were The New Boys in 1997. I had shot some ad campaigns internationally prior to that but it was Stewart’s CD cover that I felt was my big break. Turns out, it wasn’t. I didn’t work for six months after that!
What are the things about your work that you love?
I love the childlike feeling of excitement that I get every time I create something visual. To this day, the entire process, from conceptualizing to executing to seeing the final result, gives me so much satisfaction. Not to sound like a Hollywood cliche, I could never wrap my head around that I could actually get paid to have this much fun.
What are the things about your work that makes it the most interesting to you?
The best part of my career is that I get to meet so many fascinating people. Not only the ones that I photograph but also everyone I meet along the way. I feel like that has given me such a unique perspective on everything. The travel has also been spectacular. Photography is the gift that just keeps on giving.
What are the challenges you face as a freelance photographer?
Challenges? Not sure that there are any. I whine and complain about stuff every now and again but in the back of my mind, I’m reveling in the fact that I’ve had such a rich and fulfilling life and career. I think that gratitude precludes me from perceiving anything as a real challenge.
Was there ever a time when you thought you’d give up?
Yes. My mom died in December of 1998 which plunged me into such a deep depression. I didn’t know what it was at the time but I lost interest in everything. I just thought that the passion I had for photography was gone and that I’d have to come up with a new plan. Fortunately, I figured out what was wrong with me and took care of it.
What are some of the most important qualities that a photographer can have?
I’ve always found that people skills are the most valuable assets a photographer can have.
What makes you a good photographer?
What makes me a good photographer is my ability to problem-solve. Everyone that I work with knows that they can count on me to get the job done well, fast, and without incident.
How do you continue to grow as a photographer?
I tend to surround myself with people who are either younger or smarter than I am which pushes me to try new things and see things from a different perspective. Also, being an autodidact. If there is something that I want to know about or learn, I Google the shit out of it. I’m a voracious consumer of information which all manifests in my work at one point or another.
What has changed most about the industry in the time that you’ve been working in photography?
Everything and nothing.
Would you say that you have a signature style?
Yep, my point of view is my signature style. Only I see things the way that I do and as a result, the way I regurgitate information is unique to me.
How has social media affected your career or work?
Don’t get me started. I’ve always tried to stay ahead of the tech curve as it relates to photography but as we all know, social media has become the scourge of our culture and society. I do my very best to navigate it without being consumed by it.
Do you have a project that you’ve done that you are especially proud of?
I have used my skill as a photographer extensively on philanthropic projects, supporting the LGBTQ+ community and helping animals in need. Two organizations in particular that I support is Ali Forney Center and Stand Up For Pits Foundation – those are the projects that I am most proud of.
What project was the most satisfying?
The more creative freedom I have on a project, the happier I am. During the pandemic, I was feeling creatively stifled so I inserted myself as creative director for three magazines – PhotoBook Magazine, L’Officiel Fashion Book Monte Carlo and L’Officiel
Fashion Book Australia. Since I call the creative shots at all three, I now have platforms to continue shooting while maintaining the freedom of expression that is most gratifying to me.
What project was the most challenging?
There’s that word again! The most physically demanding shoot was one where I was chest-deep in a lagoon in the British Virgin Islands shooting an ad campaign for eight hours while being eaten alive by jellyfish. Good times!!!
What project did you have the most fun working on?
The most side-splitting fun I have EVER had on any project has to be when I directed the feature film, Starrbooty. It was non-stop, uproarious laughter from the first day of filming to the last day of promoting. Fun fact, The Academy Of Arts and Sciences recently requested that the screenplay for Starrbooty be made part of their permanent archive.
What do you look for in creative partners – makeup artists, hairstylists, fashion stylists?
The first and foremost thing that I look for are people who are fun to work with. All things considered equal, I will ALWAYS work with people that I enjoy.
What inspires you?
Decent, kind-hearted, funny, and intelligent people inspire me.
Do you ever get stuck creatively?
What would your clients say is the best thing about working with you?
You’ll have to ask them. I can’t be objective. My answer would be “because I’m FUCKING AWESOME!” Haha.
Is there someone you have always wanted to work with who you haven’t had the chance to do yet?
Nope. I’ve worked with everyone that I’ve set my sights on so far. That’s not to say that there are people I don’t know about yet with whom I would like to work with. Once I learn who they are, I will make those shoots manifest too.
What should someone who is looking to develop a career in photography know before getting into the business?
My only advice is to be realistic and self-aware enough to know that only passion to the power of ten will bring you success as an artist of any kind. I was given so much advice, mostly negative when I started. Had I listened to any of it, I would not be doing this interview. No one could have stopped me because I had the raging fire burning in me. If you have it, you’ll know it.
What’s next for Mike Ruiz?
Who knows? My entire life has been one unexpected turn after another. I don’t even try speculating anymore. I just take the opportunities as they come.
Words Michael DeVellis
Photos Mike Ruiz