Denisse Ariana Peréz | In episode 73 of Light Culture Podcast, Paper Magazine founder David Hershkovits talks with polymath Denisse Ariana Peréz about her photography, creative career, artistic process, and inspirations.
Denisse Ariana Peréz is an artist for our times–even if she won’t call herself an artist. Her photographs feature a beautiful range of portraits and still lifes that have themes of earth, water, love, family, and relationships. Both personal and universal, the artists’ work defies and defines our existential moment. Join us for a gilmpse into her process and inspirations.
Denise Ariana Perez is an artist for our times. Caribbean-born, based in Copenhagen, Denmark, she embraces a commercial and artistic practice that includes being a copywriter for a branding agency, as well as personal work in the medium of photography. She uses words and imagery as a way to tell a story that’s greater than any individual shot she may take with her camera. Her art photography tends to focus on afro communities and other marginalized groups that she feels inspired by and connected to. This can range from Italian men in suits to African albinos. With social justice for women, afro, and LGBTQ communities at the top of the art world agenda. She’s in sync with what’s going on in the mind of creatives wherever they may be based. So welcome, Denise.
Well, thank you for having me.
I’d like to know a little bit about your story. A woman from the Caribbean, I believe Dominican Republic, originally. Wound up living in Copenhagen, which is not typically a destination for, at least as far as I know, because I live in the lower east side of New York where I know there are a lot of Dominicans here. This is where, traditionally, people have been coming. So how did you get there? Tell me a little bit about your journey?
Well, I’ve lived a very nomadic life, I would say. My parents would tell you I’m a very unconventional, very untropical, Dominican born person. I’ve lived in different places. I left very young. I moved when I was about seventeen, then I moved to Switzerland, then I moved to New York. That’s where I went to college. I worked there for a bit. And then I moved to Stockholm, in Sweden. And I then went to a very alternative school a digital media school that meets hippy cult if we were to describe it in a way. I ended up in Copenhagen. And I’m soon moving to Barcelona, actually. Next month.
That is, uh, the summary of my journey so far.
The nomadic life is something that suits you, I suppose? You’re not really looking to put down roots anywhere?
Well, I think roots are an abstract concept. I think I’m not necessarily interested in traditional roots. You can grow a single root somewhere. I think that you connect different places in different ways for a different amount of time, and in different phases in your life. I don’t know if I’ll be somewhere else for ten years next, I just know that as long as it feels right and as long as I’m learning that becomes, the space for that period of time. So it’s not like I’m scaping around. It’s more of, um, finding contrast and learning from it, and one place allows me to pursue certain pursuits that I’m interested in.
So what was it about Copenhagen that attracted you there initially?
As I mentioned before, I was in Stockholm and I’m super thankful for the school that I went to there. It was very out there. And it’s very non-traditional form of education. And so they have like no teachers, no grades. We only work in teams. You never work alone. It was like truly diverse and international, and people have a thirty age, difference in one class. It’s like a creative lab. But as much as I loved being in that school specifically, and then spent a couple years in Stockholm, I just knew that I was ready to move on. And Copenhagen was a more suited middle ground for me. It feels like the child of Stockholm and Berlin if they had a baby. It was a little bit more down to earth than Stockholm. And that’s how I ended up here. And then I had a job offer here, and then I moved.
Oh, so the job offer, is that what I was referring to earlier? As a copywriter? Which is something that you put front and center on your bio.
Yeah. Well, I was working for Vice in Stockholm, which then turned into Vice and media. So then I just, um, transferred from office to the other, basically.
As a senior copywriter.
Right. But, you know, artists traditionally have their side hustle, which might be copywriter, as you have it. Or, some other job that’s working for the man, [laughter] as opposed to doing your own thing. But you don’t seem to have any self consciousness about that. Cause people are sometimes afraid, at least in the US where most of my contacts are in the art world, if they’re doing something else, they won’t be taken seriously as an artist.
Oh, I don’t care about those things. [laughter] I- I really don’t. I think, if anything… I think I function very much from both sides of my brain. I’m an extremely rational person. And I think that I have artistic tendencies, yes.
But, um, I wouldn’t necessarily catalog myself as either. I actually enjoy having to find structures through writing to solve problems. It’s like utilizing another medium. In a commercial sense. But I do think that there’s a potential to create meaningful commercial work. I don’t think that they need to be exclusive. And I think that’s a bigger challenge. Trying to bring substance into, you know, brands or commercial endeavors, or it doesn’t have to be a commercial brand. It could be an NGO. And it’s another way of helping them aesthetically in the way that they communicate. And I think that’s super interesting. It doesn’t have to be exclusively, “Oh, I am creating for something completely superficial
So that’s something that matters to you. If you take on a client or an account, that would be important to you, to make sure that you are able to get some of your vision into whatever their content that you’re creating.
Oh, yes. I will challenge them for sure. [laughs] Yes.
You say meaningful commercial work, which is a very interesting way of thinking about it because so much of what’s happened in the corporate world is moving in that direction. Not necessarily, because they wanted to, but because they have to. Given the world that we’re in right now, with so many people demanding equality, respect, social justice. It fits your sensibility as well.
Yeah. I’m a very verbal human being, and I’m very visual at the same time. And I’m just utilizing the different mediums that I can play into. And for personal work and commercial work, I can bring aesthetic sensibility into a commercial brief, but also to my personal work. So I think just there are different mediums that inform one another. I don’t see it as like these two segregated parts of my life.
It helps probably to be so out of the art world bubble that artists often find themselves in when they live in the art world capitals. New York or London. In that respect, because, you’re looked at differently. You’re always competing with other artists. You’re trying to get recognized. You’re trying to get shows. You’re trying to be bought by collectors.
Yes. Yeah. Yeah. But I’ve always- I’ve never… and this is something I’m very thankful for. I was born on an island that made me very allergic to islands. And by this, I mean, anything that feels insular, I do not want to be immersed in it fully. I always keep one leg outside. So the art world can feel very much like an island. So I have no interest in just fully immersing myself in that world. I still want to be able to float in other spaces. For me, it’s important to find contrasts. I never went to art school, and I never went to ad school. And I ended up working in these worlds and tapping into them. But I surrounded myself by contrasting environments. Or like education. I think that has informed the way in which I interpret the world in the way that I create. It doesn’t come from these linear journeys within these worlds. When I ended up in the commercial world–I am usually the only one who didn’t go to advertising school, for example. And if I ended up in an artistic endeavor, I’m like, “No, I did not go to art school.” And for the longest time, I didn’t call myself an artist. So I prefer being somewhere more nebulous in between.
When did you start to think of yourself as an artist? What happened?
If I’m completely honest, like have problems with calling myself an artist. I think I respect the work too much. Maybe? I also think that a lot of artists who are artists don’t call themselves that, they just do what they do. I definitely don’t want to use it. I respect the term. I don’t want to wave it like a flag, to be honest. But I do remember the time in which I couldn’t deny anymore that there is definitely a deep intrinsic artistic nature within me. And I think that happened within the last, I think, five years or four years. Actually, if I’m very honest, the more I owned up to my own like, femininity or feminine energy, the more I came to terms with the fact that I have an artistic nature. So they- they both happened at the same time. I think I had to own up my sensibilities in order to really admit that I feel things in a very deep profound way, maybe more than I thought I did before.
I know the feeling, in a way, even as a writer, we all have these, you know, heroes and we always have them in our mind, “Oh, well I’m never as good as whoever.” You know what I mean? So, “That’s a real writer. And am I really a writer or not a writer?”
And then, you know, when you have to fill out your tax form [laughter] and it asks for profession…
What do you put down? Now you do artist, I bet. Right?
Well, it’s funny. Because it always depended on, like a position. Because a lot of the time, you know, living abroad, and then I needed a visa, and then it was always interesting to see the titles that they would put on the visa. It was always fascinating for the main like diplomats and embassies to come across someone who’s title on their visa was just the word ‘creative’ or- [laughs] Right?
Oh, okay. Yeah.
You know? And they were like, “What do you do? What is this? I’ve never met such a thing.” Um. The last one, um, they just really could not find words, and they were like, “I’m just gonna put artist. Like this is just too abstract.” Um. So they just put artist.
So they made the decision for you?
Oh, yeah. And it was like a linguistic limitation because it had to be in Spanish, in this case. And they were like, “No. We’re just not gonna put an English term.” Like copywriter is an English word, for example.
So they were like, “No. Let’s sum it up with artist.”
I’m gonna get to your work in a minute, but I couldn’t let you go without telling me why you’re going to Barcelona. Because you’re a very international person. We’ll talk about your trips to Africa, for example, where you spent a lot of time it looks like. Why did you pick Barcelona now? What is it about it, or you that makes it a destination right now?
Well, I’m gonna be studying there. I’m gonna be doing a Masters.
Yes. So that-
It’s in photography design, actually.
Yes. So that is what’s driving me to the south.
As I mentioned, lots of your work was shot in Africa, and I’d like to know a little bit about how you got there and what drew you there. And, how you got started shooting there.
Well, one of the first projects that I did in Africa was this project called Q and A, which stands for Queer and Africa. And I went to different countries in East Africa, specifically Rwanda, Tanzania, and Kenya. And I wanted to document LGBTQI people living in these countries because, as you might know, there’s a lot of discrimination against LGBTQI people in many parts of the African continent. And to me, the LGBTQI communities is very close and dear to my heart. I just really wanted to learn more about it. But I think in my work, something shifted, I think, about three years ago, I would say. And I will rewind a little bit back to explain what drew me to the continent. I was always very curious about it. I’m a biracial person. My dad is of full Afro-Caribbean descent. So he’s a black man. And, in Dominican society, there’s a lot of internalized racism, actually, and there is no embracing of any Afro heritage. It’s very much denied. I always felt curiosity towards it. To explore that. To see it and in an environment that was not demonized, or silenced, or just erased from the history books, but also from society. I was always very curious to go to the mother continent. And when I went there the first time, I found so much beauty. It’s so vast. There was so much uncharted territory, even for my own fantasies of it. And I took this picture of these boys in Senegal. And there was a kid from Senegal who wrote to me, and he told me, “Thank you so much for portraying my country in such a beautiful way.” And he told me that it made him look at his own country in a different way. And that really moved me, and it touched me. And from that moment on, I decided that I was just really tired of all the negative and tragic narratives that historically have been used to depict Africa. And I just wanted to focus on highlighting beauty. I made a decision to only focus on beauty. I was like, “I’m gonna merge art and documentary, like, photography. And I’m gonna find a middle ground. And we can blend the two, and tell, maybe, a serious story but through very beautiful aesthetics. And I also just wanted to elevate people. I wanted the person in front of me to feel like I’m portraying them in a beautiful dignified, empowering way. That was a very conscious decision. So every trip that I made throughout Africa, my goal was to look for these, sometimes, like deeper and more serious stories, but they were gonna be portrayed with, aesthetic minimalism and with a little bit of fashion, and with artistry. So I had no interest in documenting, anything in a literal sense or, also, I had no interest in adding to this rhetoric of poverty, which is traditionally the only narrative that we get from Africa. So that’s what drove me, also, to go there. I was like, “I’m going to change these narratives.” I made it kind of like a personal mission.
So you took your subjects, which I guess you approached individually? Cause often you shoot in groups, as well. Did these people know each other? Are you a people person that could easily walk up to someone and start, you know, telling your story?
Oh yeah. [laughs] I’m quite- I’m quite an ambivert. So I am very extraverted. Yeah. I’m very good with people, I would say. I wouldn’t be able to- to take the pictures I take, if I wasn’t able to make a connection with people. Even despite the language barrier, a lot of time. And a lot of times, I’m travelling by myself. I’m going to these countries on my own, and I reach out to organizations a lot of times. For example, when I was documenting LGBTQI people, then I approached different LGBTQI groups in these countries prior to going. And when I shot people with albinism, it was the same. I met an activist in Tanzania when I was there, and then that led me to him introducing me to some other people living with albinism in the country, and then led to another connection. So a lot of people work. Because I photograph people, so it has to be people work. It needs to be. It’s very important for me to build trust, but also to create a super intimate space when I’m shooting someone. So it takes a lot of emotional energy, I would say. [???]
And your part as well, the subjects as well. Because they have to trust you completely.
Yes. A hundred percent. For me, I always say, the first two minutes or the first minutes in, you know, when I’m faced with a person that I’m interested in shooting. I have a minute for them to trust me. And then after that, anything can happen. But there needs to be trust. There needs to be a lot of respect, and a lot of trust. And- and sometimes I meet my subjects on the street.
Then we exchange numbers. I show them my work. They also are very honored and excited once they know that my intentions are to portray them in a beautiful light. A lot of them are skeptical of foreigners who come and just take National Geographic-like pictures of a starving child. So they’re very excited when they see that’s not what I’m about, and that’s not my intention. And a lot of times, I am with a local who can help me build trust through language or through, you know, having a connection to the- to the culture.
I’m thinking particularly right now of these two series that you did of men, uh, I guess, called Cloaked, is one, and Men In Water series. And you say there that your work there aims to portray men, particularly black men, through a more sensible and nuanced lens. Because black men have been historically hyper-sexualized or reduced to their physical strength by Westernized patriarchal systems. So, um, just to continue. “I’m interested in portraying them as complex, multifaceted vulnerable beings.” So is this what you tell them when you meet them? Or is this just what you’re thinking, and then, you know, you just tell them you want to take a beautiful sensitive photo?
I definitely do not say it in that more [laughter], you know, poetic, verbose- [laughs] I do tell them that. For example, that series specifically started as a series around men and water, right? And then that is in itself the first story. It’s a story of people and they’re relationship with water, and the story of how water can disarm a person. And how we can talk about a person, especially a man’s relationship to nature. And it starts from that conversation and I don’t want to over-politicize it either, when I’m talking to my subjects. You know? And a lot of times, it depends. Sometimes there is a linguistic barrier, you know. And sometimes I think the work speaks for itself. When I show them my work, they can sense what is intended too. And they can see it as a bigger body of work, as a collection, I think. Sometimes a picture is truly worth more than a thousand words.
So I make sure to show them my work. And then it’s completely up to them to want to be part of it or not. I never take people’s, for example, numbers. Like they reach out to me. I present myself, I introduce myself, and I’m like, “Do you want to be part of this?” And then it’s up to them.
Are the men, you say, that you sometimes approach randomly on the street or are introduced to, I’m thinking about this particular project of the hyper-sexualized. So are you looking for someone who has that persona physically present as part of their lifestyle, gang world, or whatever the context may be? And then try to then take that and flip it into some situation where they look more soft and gentle? And, no longer, the physical embodiment of this idea of what the black man in Africa looks like. Or does it really matter? Or are they gay? Is that partly what you’re looking at too?
No. Unless it’s a specific project, for example, when I said albinos or LGBTQI, that’s a specific demographic. For the men series, I’m very direct and led by my gut. When I’m attracted to someone, I’m just attracted to someone. Some of them are naturally, let’s say they are not overtly muscular. Or some of them are a little bit, um, just thinner and have a more feminine aura to them. It depends. I’m attracted to who I’m attracted to. There’s no regulation in that sense. And I’m not intentionally looking for like a, you know-
A hyper- No. If anything, I would steer away, personally, most of the time, I would steer away from that.
When it comes to the work of other photographers or artists, who do you look to? Who inspires you?
I think different artists, I would say- You mean, photographically, speaking? Yes?
Not necessarily, uh, only photographically. But yes. I mean, it could be filmmakers, it could be musicians, could be fashion designers. People that get you excited with their work.
First, I’ll choose a director. Film director. I love Pedro Almodovar.
Mm. Me too.
I think he’s incredible. Um. I think his way of utilizing, not only storytelling, but color and abstraction with a lot of emotion. The way that he utilizes music and- and also queerness. I love his work.
Yeah. He’s brilliant.
I also love, um, Andre Wagner, who is a photographer in New York City. For me, he’s like a modern day Vivian Maier, but even more raw. And he’s actually a friend of mine. I met him in New York when I was living there and much younger, and he has just grown into this beautiful artist. He only shoots black and white photographs all over the US, but specifically New York City. And he just has a way- His work feels like it was taken in 1930, but is taken now. He has an old soul and an old lens. And, he captures human beings in such a raw way. I love Vivian Maier, as well. I love her work.
I actually know Pedro a little bit over the years. I’ve interviewed him several times.
I have. And I just saw that he made his first American movie, or English language film. But it was only thirty minutes. And they had it at the New York Film Festival. It’s with Tilda Swinton, and it’s basically a thirty minute monologue of hers. It’s insane but beautiful. And, to your point about his color and set design, and sensibility, aesthetics, he does all of that for me, as well.
Yes. He is Saint Peter, for me. [laughter] Like old Saint Almodovar, in my book. [laughs]
When you go to Spain, maybe you should try to visit him in Madrid.
I know. I should try- Yes. Be like, just knock on his door, I’m like, “I’m here.”
Well, you know, you never know. Right? He’s- he’s the kind of guy that might just say, “Sure. Come up.”
He definitely loves an assertive woman. So I can like [laughter] I can provide that. So… [laughs]
Okay. Good. You might wind up in one of his films, as well.
Who knows? He needs a leading woman with big hair.
And you speak Spanish too. Right?
Yes. So I’m basically his new muse.
You’re it. Okay. [laughter] I’m glad we set it all up here today.
So it’s really cool. But tell me a little about your years in New York. What was that like? When was that?
That was… When is a great question. [laughter] I moved there in 2008. And I lived there until 2014? So the four first years I was in college in a little liberal arts school, a little bit upstate. And then I graduated, and I moved to the city. Then I started working there.
Did what? What did you do?
And- Um. So do you know this fashion brand called BLK DNM? B-L-K D-N-M.
Yes. I do.
Yes. So my first job out of college.
Was that Johan Lindeberg?
It functioned like a startup. Everything was done in-house. So it was like it’s own creative lab, and it was very guerilla style. And you had, you know, everything was just done in-house. So I was his personal assistant, but then I was the PR marketing person-
The PR marketing person’s assistant. And then that’s when he became a photographer. So then I curated all of his photo work back then and edited it. So I had like-
Yeah. He was shooting the ads, right?
But I know Johan too, by the way.
Yes. So then that was like, yeah, my first job out of college. Which was pretty cool.
And you were making the scene of New York then? On, like, to the fashion shows and all that? Exposed to all of that stuff?
Uh. Yes. But I also, as I said before, I’m not very interested in the little worlds. [laughter] I had access to it. Yes, I accessed it. I accessed what I wanted to access. I did not, be like, be comfortably immersed. I have a love and hate relationship with the fashion world. [laughs] And fashion photography, to be honest. So I was interested in what, in that time, I think back then I was trying to portray, there was very little editing, for example, in the photographs that like they were trying to portray the models in a more raw way. Show a bit more emotion. And, I was interested in that. In that foundation of fashion photography, and trying to create fashion that was a little bit more timeless and not based on trends. I think they saw themselves a little bit like the anarchists of SoHo, in a way. There was something interesting in that. I have respect for the fashion world, and fashion photography. It’s a love and hate relationship.
So what did you do with your time? Where did you hang out? What was your scene like?
What was my scene? [laughs] Well, New York has so many scenes. That’s what I love about it. I spent time in Brooklyn, and Harlem, and, outside of New York. Even though I worked in SoHo. So, yeah. I think a mixture of many things. A mixture of jazz bars. I love going by myself to jazz bars. It’s one of my favorite things in the entire world. In different cities.
Cause nobody else will go with you, probably. [laughs]
Yeah. No, but I have a very old soul, in that sense. No. But also when I told you I am an absolute ambivert. I travel by myself, I go to the cinema by myself, and I go to jazz bars by myself. I love that about New York City. It’s a place where you can go to a restaurant, have a five course meal on your own, and nobody will question why you’re doing that. And it’s something I take with me wherever I go. I’ve done that in Tokyo. I love that. It creates a sense of autonomy in one’s self to do what want to do. So that I love about New York. I miss eating in New York.
Yeah. Well, we all do now, because it’s a mess.
Yes. Yes. Yes. But that sense of, um, I think that culinary culture of New York. And by culinary I mean, this sense- this respect and appreciation for what sitting down means and to eat with people. And still in a metropolitan context. And by that I mean, from a food truck to an upscale restaurant. And, of course, going to museums and art shows in New York, that was very much part of that, as well.
And when you were here, I saw that you had a piece, where you gave cameras to people who were basically living on the street for the most part, as a project.
That was actually my… That school that I told that I went to in Stockholm, you have to do an, well, an assignment, basically. That they give you. And they give you a brief. I don’t remember what the brief was, but this was the way in which I interpreted it. I just bought disposable cameras, and I just handed them to mostly homeless people in New York. Well, homeless but also disabled or partially, like, homeless. And I wanted them to be the ones in charge of the camera again. Because it doesn’t matter how much of an empathetic photographer you are, you’re still directing someone. Or if not directing, you’re still framing someone’s story. So I just want them to have that agency and just tell the story that they wanted to tell in like twenty-four hours of their lives.
Did you consider yourself an activist?
I get that question a lot. [laughs] And I am not very fond of that question. I don’t see myself as an activist because I think an activist should be, first and foremost, as objective as possible. I’m still an artist. So art, at the end of the day, is subjective. And I want to remain portraying the stories I want to portray in a subjective way. I’m interpreting what I see. I think that I can be socially involved, and definitely contribute to create social awareness. But at the end of the day, I’m doing that through my voice, which is a subjective voice and it’s interpretation. And, um, yeah. I think- I think that it… That question bothers me a little bit because there’s a tendency for people to politicize the work that is made by anyone who is either a female or like POC. It’s like if you are involved in any way, and as if because I’m portraying certain communities that that is immediately politicized, or because I, myself, am a female and my work must be politicized because of that. So I am involved, but I’m not an activist. I am an artist who cares about social awareness.
Denise Ariana Perez, thank you so much for being my guest today. I really enjoyed learning more about you and your practice. And good luck in Barcelona. Let’s stay in touch.
Thank you. It has been a pleasure. And thank you for having me.