Celebrating Roots, Elevating Reality, and Dignifying Humanity
An interview with Denisse Ariana Perez
By Sara E. Lopez
Our co-founder, Sara Lopez, sits down with Caribbean-born, Barcelona-based photographer, artist, and author of AGUA, Denisse Ariana Perez. We discuss her island roots, travel, guiding forces, converging fantasy and reality, family, and the major themes of her work. Part rebellion, part dedication to her loved ones, her captures are inspiring, spirit-driven, and challenge the way we see reality.
SL: Where are you originally from?
DP: I’m originally from the Caribbean, in the Dominican Republic.
SL: I’ve been following you for a couple of years now on Social Media, and you’ve traveled to so many different places around the world. What has that been like for you?
DP: I mean, I have had a very nomadic life. I’ve lived in very different places throughout my life. Especially the last 3, 4, 5 years I began to travel more and more and more. And the last few years, I specifically started to travel around Africa. So, I’ve been traveling around a good chunk of the world.
I had a really spiritually awakening experience in South America, in Ecuador and Peru specifically, where I shot some photos of indigenous communities and Afro-Ecuadorians.
SL: What brought you to Ecuador?
DP: My aunt was living in Ecuador, and she wanted to do something together. She was doing a project about Afro-Ecuadorians and Afro minorities that have lived on that side of South America. They are almost unheard-of communities; you never think of these communities on the Western side of the continent, but there are minorities there, and they’ve existed there for quite some time. So my aunt, who is a professor, wanted to do some research on the subject, especially when it comes to ethnography education. So we explored, and she got in touch with this community, and she wanted to interview them about their experiences being Afro minorities, especially women. But some of them were Afro mixed with indigenous communities, and that’s a whole other thing as well.
SL: We have a good friend that we met traveling and working around the Amazon in Brazil, and he claims black and indigenous ancestry. He explained how his mother is indigenous and comes from Guyana. It was the first time I met someone with ties to Guyana. And when he said Guyana, it just felt like a mystery. That part of the world was hardly discussed in my education. Whether that’s Afro-Ecuadorian communities or places like Guyana and Suriname— no one talks about them.
DP: There’s a joke I have with my best friend. It’s an inside joke about when someone doesn’t know where a place is. So we’ll say, “Where’s Suriname?” And that’s because I mentioned Suriname to this friend, and he had no idea where it was. And so then I asked, “Where is Suriname?” And he was just like, “Mmm…”
And everybody says it’s in Asia. I’ve never met someone who knew where Suriname actually was. Unless, of course, when I have been in the Netherlands because Suriname was a Dutch colony. If you are in Amsterdam and people are talking about Caribbean culture, people refer to Suriname. So when you go look for Caribbean food in the Netherlands, a lot of it is from there. It’s from Suriname.
SL: As you mentioned earlier, you live quite a nomadic life and travel often. How has being mixed shaped your experiences traveling?
DP: Being a mixed person allows you to experience the world in a very unique way. It allows you to be able to dip your toes in very different spaces. You never fully belong, but you are allowed in. I think people feel curious and drawn to you because you’re not the extreme, so there’s a familiarity in it. Sometimes it allows a curiosity or confusion. There have been places in my travels where people act very confused because they’ve never seen a mixed person before.
People just assume like “Oh my God, you have an advantage traveling in Africa,” also because before I was wearing an Afro. And I’m like—no. I’ve made children cry before because they were confused by my skin color, so people are looking at me like, “what happened to you?”
Another example is that I’ve never been so reminded of how I looked like I was in South Africa. Everything is categorized by the way you look. I’ve never had to wake up every day and have to be reminded of the fact that I’m another color.
SL: I feel like it’s still very much like that in America.
DP: For me, I’m very thankful I didn’t grow up in the States or South Africa, where race dominates. Don’t get me wrong, I grew up in a very racist country; however, class came before race. This is also the case in the UK or Latin America. Yes, you are constantly reminded of your identity, but you are allowed in a space depending on how much money you have more than anything else. I think in the States, race dominates. And that’s a big difference I noticed when I compared the US and the UK. In the UK, class dominates.
SL: I’ve theorized that the States will transform into a class-dominated society. Is this something you can see happening as well?
DP: I would hope, but I mean, I lived my adult life very aware of the body I embody and the gender I represent; however, it does not dictate my life. In an American context, it is so fixated on identity that it feels claustrophobic for me. That’s where I feel the biggest cultural differences. Even when I go back to New York, it is very intrinsically American to be very much fixated on the concept of individual identity. To me, this might sound more spiritual, but I don’t live my life dictated by the limits of my body. So I don’t think every day of my gender, I don’t think every day of my skin, I just live my life. There are moments, of course, where I understand what I mean in a space when I feel… something that can only be felt if you have black blood in you, but it is not the main symphony in my life.
Culturally, I can see distances in terms of values within me, and when I come back to the States, I feel that chasm. As a mixed person, you don’t connect with the concept of boxes.
SL: How was it growing up in the Dominican Republic? (in terms of identity and race?)
DP: Basically, I didn’t understand that my father was an Afro-Caribbean man until I was like 17 years old. I think my aunt was a big influence on that. She was the first person to introduce the term “Afro-Caribbean” to me. She also left the island very young like me. I immigrated alone, my family is still there…
I felt clearly a lack of belonging, and I knew I had to leave. I came back to visit, but I haven’t lived there since I was 17. I felt very out of place.
In school, there is a pride of “multi-combinations” of things, but there is no pride in the African part of the heritage. They are proud of being mixed people and indigenous and, even though the indigenous culture did not survive in the Caribbean, there is that pride… of course, the Spanish blood as well. The African side has never been embraced. It was usually reserved for Haitian people. We were sort of taught they are “real.” They are “black.”
SL: Did you ever think about your ancestral roots growing up?
DP: I come from an island, and islands are very insular and narrow-minded, so I think I started to question more when visiting my aunt. I was not really raised with my dad’s (Afro-Caribbean) side of the family either. I was raised more with my mother’s side of the family. I think it was an organic process. I feel like when I was mature enough, I started to question more my roots, and I started to travel more to Africa. My first trip was actually to Ethiopia. But Africa is also vast, and I did not have this romanticized perception of it. I didn’t go trying or expecting to feel like “suddenly I belong somewhere”. For me, I like to look at every place with respect and distance until I’m allowed in. I don’t see it as “this is mine!” you know. I never went expecting to be just welcomed because I have melanin in my body.
I think going to the west (Africa), I could trace back some messages of Caribbean culture. I could see it in the music and the food. There were some things energetically, but not everywhere. Some places surprised me. If there was no clear root or connection in a place, energetically, I still felt connected. And I’ve felt connected to places I didn’t expect to feel connected to, in the world. I don’t think we are limited to the genetic lineage, you know. I have felt different connections in different places…
(on Africa) I just knew I wanted to see it and feel it, and afterward, it was clear that I didn’t want to keep on telling negative stories about it. I wanted to highlight beauty. I made a very conscious decision. When I was first traveling, I did take pictures of many things there. But there was a moment a couple of years ago where I stopped and realized I just wanted to highlight beauty. I’m not going to take pictures of anything that resembled scarcity, I would avoid it. I had this thought “Look for beauty all the time.” Just thinking, “How can I portray this person in the most dignified way possible?”
When people talk about documentary photography, I don’t do that— not traditionally. I’m not capturing reality. I’m adding fantasy to reality. It’s like a mental exercise to imagine what is in front of you. I wanted to add a little bit of elevation. It came very intuitively for me.
SL: It sounds like your journey with photography has also been a journey of healing for yourself.
DP: I remember when I first started photographing people. I went to Cuba before going to Africa. I didn’t know at the time, but when I came back from that trip, I showed the pictures to my dad, I’m really close with my dad, and he said, “Denisse, did you go to Cuba to photograph black people?” I was like, no, like what are you talking about. I was not just following around black people. He tells me, “Denisse, 90% of your photos are of black people.” And I was like, no way, but it was true.
I think there was a childlike amusement to see Cuba. Despite being so close, it is so different to some key things I couldn’t identify or connect with in the DR. Things like classism, the sense that education is not determined by how much money you have, and in terms of race. I remember going around Cuba, and I was in awe about seeing someone that looked like the color of my (black) jumpsuit and speaking Spanish, singing Cuban songs, and singing songs that my father raised me with, songs I hadn’t heard in 15 years. There was a lot of nostalgia. Also, seeing women with curly hair and with their afros. I was just in awe of the women. Seeing all these shades and sort of like rainbow of skin tones, women wearing their hair naturally. I always wish I could, but I never knew how I could, and I think without me knowing, I was very drawn to the beauty of black skin, in black skin. I was never allowed to, but I think I always was. I always felt the beauty in my brothers and my dad. I allowed that gut feeling to take me. I went to Africa with that gut feeling and getting closer and closer to the skin and the body— and sort of paying homage to it. The more I did that, the more I felt pride in those parts of my roots. The more beauty I found in them, the more beauty I found in me. I felt very proud to trace the lines in my face, understand my body and why it looks this way.
I think the last element that would happen is that I let my hair go natural. And I had no one to teach me. I had to learn from YouTube. I didn’t grow up with that. That usually comes from the maternal side, and I probably would not have been allowed to go to school if my hair was curly.
SL: What do you hope to achieve or inspire through your work?
DP: I want to see it as a life mission to dignify people overall, not just black skin. I don’t want to be pigeonholed. For me, I think, of course, I have something very specific with the brown and black bodies because they have never been portrayed in a vulnerable or sensitive way. There’s something in that. It’s a little bit of a rebellion, in a way. Rebelling against everything I grew up with. A very daring celebration. It’s also a love letter. It’s a love letter to my father and brothers, I always saw them as beautiful beings— beautiful men. A lot of my work revolves around men, actually.
SL: When I think of your work in Turkey and Africa, I definitely see that, there’s a focus on the male subject, whether that’s through your series “Men and Cocks”, “Men and Water”…
DP: Yes, there’s a lot of men (laughs). I don’t know. I’m drawn to portraying men and challenging their own perceptions in how they see themselves and create a space for men when usually they don’t enter a space where they can see that. And sometimes they are very brief interactions, but still, there are many shades of masculinity as well in the male experience, so it goes for all ages.
SL: I feel like that portraying man in his vulnerability— it’s so healing, not just for them but for the observer, to be able to witness a man surrender into these softer parts of himself, visually speaking.
DP: Yeah, it is. It’s a different way to look at themselves and for others to look at them.
And for me, when I’m shooting, I don’t think, oh I’m shooting a man, or oh I’m shooting a woman, it’s just a person. And depending on the person, different things will come out. More and more, its become a ritual, of how to turn the photographic process into a cathartic experience or a space where energy can be shared and released. That’s when it becomes more interesting.
You can pre-order Denisse’s first photobook AGUA by clicking this link. https://guesteditions.com/products/agua-denisse-ariana-perez-regular-edition
To see more of her work visit her instagram @denisseaps