Photography by Denisse Ariana Pérez | Interview by Tariq Dixon
Denisse Ariana Pérez is a Caribbean-born, Barcelona-based copywriter and photographer. In the artist’s own words, “I’m obsessed with words, people and imagery and finding ways to make them speak to one another.”
For TRNK Editions, we’ve curated a selection of photos from the artist’s first published book, Agua. Shot in Senegal, Agua is an intimate and endless journey of human exploration that captures a vital and magical relationship between people and water.
“I keep coming back to water scenes. I keep coming back to lakes, rivers and oceans. I like to explore the interaction of people with water. Water can disarm even the most armed of facades. Becoming one with water is not about rushing but rather about flowing. And flowing is the closest thing to being.”
Lac Rose, #4 by Denisse Ariana Perez
Lac Rose, #1 by Denisse Ariana Perez
Lac Rose, #3 by Denisse Ariana Perez
Lac Rose, #9 by Denisse Ariana Perez
Lac Rose, #8 by Denisse Ariana Perez
Lac Rose, #7 by Denisse Ariana Perez
Lac Rose, #6 by Denisse Ariana Perez
Lac Rose, #5 by Denisse Ariana Perez
What prompted your journey to portraiture?
It has always been portraiture. From the moment I grabbed a camera, I was always photographing people. I'm very fascinated with people and obsessed with the complexity of human beings.
Photography can be therapeutic and very intimate. It can be an invitation to get closer to someone. I look at it from that perspective. It can do so much more than just create imagery.
Is any of your work documentarian?
If you go to my Instagram, there are some photographs from a series called Mediterranean Summer. They're more candid - less forced onto a concept. But even so, I rework reality. I'm not interested in capturing something literally. I always fabricate around it. I always inject some fantasy…
Also, I'm very focused on highlighting beauty. I'm not so interested in portraying tragedy. Even though it feels very real at times - and it is - I like to dream around it. I'm kind of at the intersection between art and documentary and something commercial. It's something in between. I like that in between.
Your work, especially Agua, has a surrealist quality. The context and the framing create something dream-like, despite being real landscapes with real people.
I agree. And a lot of times, if you saw some of the landscapes in person, they're not as ethereal as the images look. And that's the thing. I'm here to reimagine what I see and look for beauty as I get closer.
There's an image in that series that somebody asked me, "Where did you find this lagoon?" And I said, “That's not a lagoon, that was literally a pond of water.” It was a pond in the middle of a drought in Tanzania. That was the little water that I could find and it could only fit two people. It's about creating a foldout, you know? I can see a majestic, endless water space in this and I'm going to travel to it. But in reality, it wasn't.
What motivates your desire to portray fantasy?
Again, it's not just fantasy. I could not do just purely fiction. I love that there's a brilliant reality and that its changeable. And then you can escape it a little bit…Well, not escape it - add to it.
It's almost like seeing past what's obvious or surface to find beauty - or to capture that very specific moment. It's interesting…like a metaphor for optimism.
For sure. I think that was the homework I assigned to myself. Especially when I started traveling to Africa, I was so done with all these negative narratives. They were always about scarcity and they were always around poverty. And I was like, no, I can see so much beauty here.
Yeah, maybe it's optimism, but I think for me, it's about being sensitive to how I want places and people to be portrayed. I want to portray them in a very dignified way - not add to existing narratives, but dream within the potential of everything that is around us.
That segues to my questions specifically around the body of work, Agua. What's the symbolism behind water?
Water is the element that I connect to the most. I perceive it as a maternal element. It's nourishing. It can be either rough or gentle, but always forces you to go deeper, to let go…
I wanted to bring that feeling or experience to other people - force them to let go of their egos or facades and ask them to dive into a process. Of course, everybody's different.
Water can also be very intimidating. It's not like everybody is ready to flow into it. It is a process where I have to be very supportive, very empathetic. Where I have to breathe alongside someone to support them in that process like, "Yes you're cold. Yes, it's freezing. This might be a position that you've never been in, but can we go further?" It can be very therapeutic for some people. They get a chance to conquer some of their fears.
You specifically mentioned that while shooting in Africa, you were conscious not to depict scarcity - or at least to not let that consume the narrative of the work. But there's an obvious tension because water has been so politicized, and so often used as means of oppression.
As I mentioned before, I was in the middle of a drought, for example. I was looking for water. I spent a couple of days just looking for a place where I could take these images. Then I'm confronted with the reality of these natural elements.
I remember going to one of my favorite areas - the Great Victoria Lake Region in East Africa. I went on a kind of pilgrimage around these lakes with my local fixer and it was devastating to see that such a great lake - the greatest lake region in the whole African continent and one of the biggest ones in the world - was so polluted in some areas that the actual coastline was just garbage. And the communities were just living on the edges of these lakes.
So there is, I think, an invitation of the work to develop a deeper relationship - or at least appreciate water more - without seeing it so explicitly. For example, when I published the book, we donated 10% of it to a clean water foundation in Africa. It was equally inspiring and devastating to encounter these conditions and the exploitation of water. But I had to force myself to go beyond that exploitation.
I'm curious to know how you went about finding and selecting the subjects for this project.
For many, I meet them on the street, literally. I’ll introduce myself, tell them that I’d like to photograph them, show them my work so they have an idea what to expect...I give them my information and ask them to reach out.
But for Agua, I wanted to photograph dancers as well. So I asked a friend of mine who's a dancer to refer me to some people. She referred me to them and I made a selection. So it varies.
Yes, I certainly noticed that some have a definite dancerly quality and an element of choreography between the two subjects…
Some of them who you'd think are dancers actually aren’t. Most of the people I photograph are people who have never modeled. I'm more drawn to people who have never modeled. A lot of times, they are men who haven't been given the opportunity to flow in these positions or be more loose with their bodies.
You might be surprised by those who are not actually dancers. This is their first time moving their bodies in such ways. And it takes more direction and guidance from me. I used to dance when I was younger so I think it’s also looking for shapes and forms – depending on the person. There are some people that flow more naturally.
There's also an intimacy between some of the subjects. Can you tell me more about the interactions between the two?
I love photographing more than one person. I love duos and trios. I love photographing people who have an existing bond with one another. Because I find it’s often easier for them to step out of their comfort zone or take risks when somebody else is doing this with them. It's also this exercise of them exploring something together, of getting closer.
For Agua, I photograph people who are friends, siblings - and there are often two men. I met one of them – I actually hand-picked him on the street - and asked, “Is there someone in your life who you are very close to and who's also male?” And he told me, "My best friend." I asked him to send me a picture, and said, “I’d love to photograph the two of you together.” So they already have an existing friendship brought into the image.