Lakeview photographer Adam Ouahmane shot these photos of drag queens Naomi Smalls (left) and Shea Coulee. [Provided by Adam Ouahmane]

LAKEVIEW – Photographer Adam Ouahmane had never met a drag queen before he moved to Chicago.

Now, Ouahmane, 30, of Lakeview, is a professional drag photographer. Queens line up to work with him, and he has tens of thousands of followers on social media. And though Ouahmane has shot some of the most famous drag queens – including winners of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” – he’s always looking for ways to highlight Chicago’s diverse cast of queens.

Landing a shoot with Ouahmane is a “status symbol,” said The Vixen, a Chicago queen who gained national attention on season 10 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” this spring.

“It shows that you take your work seriously and, more importantly, he takes you seriously,” said The Vixen, who frequently collaborates with Ouahmane. “The queens he takes on as muses have all gone on to be big names in the industry.”

Ouahmane just sort of “stumbled upon” drag photography. The Michigan native moved to Chicago in 2013 and worked as a photographer, focusing on fashion. He eventually took photos of Kim Chi, a Chicago queen known for her artistic looks.

Kim landed on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” a popular TV competition show for drag queens, in 2016 and shared Ouahmane’s photos. His popularity “exploded,” he said.

“That’s how it all started,” Ouahmane said.

Ouahmane now has more than 26,000 followers on Instagram, where he posts photos of the queens he shoots. Drag queen RuPaul has shared Ouahmane’s photos, and the country’s most famous queens travel to Chicago to get photographed by Ouahmane.

“Working with the girls” is the best part, Ouahmane said. “They’re a lot of fun. We’re artists working together. It’s really fun to work together and see what we can come up with as a team.”

Photographer Adam Ouahmane works to highlight Chicago’s drag queens, including (from left) Imp Queen, Trannika Rex, The Vixen, Nico, Lucy Stoole and Shea Coulee. [Provided by Adam Ouahmane]

The queens typically contact Ouahmane to set up a shoot, he said. They pick a date for the photos and talk about what the performers want the finished photo to look like. If Ouahmane understands what the queens wants and needs, he can direct them and the shoot itself might take as little as 10 minutes.

After that, Ouahmane might work with the queens to retouch the photos so they match the vision of the performers and the photographer.

The queens use the photos to get more attention on social media and in ads for events where they perform, helping raise awareness of their work. And Ouahmane’s popularity means he’s been able to make drag photography his primary career.

But the pictures aren’t just for business: They’re artistic and political, with Ouahmane purposefully seeking out diverse queens and working closely with them so there’s more representation of performers of color. Queens like The Vixen have even used the photos for their activism work, with The Vixen recently sharing a photo from Ouahmane that encourages people to know their HIV status.

“It’s like a platform that I’m using to showcase what we have in this city,” Ouahmane said. Chicago is “totally like the new epicenter of drag because … it’s so diverse.”

Chicago drag queen the Vixen, who competed on season 10 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” (Courtesy Adam Ouahmane)

Ouahmane has worked in other photography fields before, shooting weddings and even doing food photography. But those aren’t “my main passion,” he said, and he loves the variety in Chicago’s drag scene, where pageant girls rub elbows with comedians, camp queens, club kids and everyone else.

“Everyone knows everyone, everyone respects everyone’s drag,” Ouahmane said. “It’s just like a melting pot.”

The diversity has helped Ouahmane’s career, he said, as he’s branched out from just shooting high-fashion queens to shooting all types of drag performers.

Ouahmane hopes to one day appear on “Drag Race” as a guest photographer for a challenge – or maybe even shoot the promotional shots the queens have done to kick off new seasons of the show.

“Drag photography is a lot more fun,” he said. “It’s my community. It’s very artistic and creative and fun. …I love the transformation the girls do.”

More of Ouahmane’s drag photography:

Farrah Moan
Eva Young
Violet Chachki
Kim Chi Twitter @BauerJournalism