Denisse Ariana Pérez

We catch photographer Denisse Ariana Pérez in the middle of unpacking boxes and trying to blend in with the Spanish locals. While the world is at a standstill due to the pandemic, Denisse just moved from Copenhagen to Barcelona. We chat about her Dominican upbringing, not wanting to be put in a box and porridge…

Hey Denisse, what is Barcelona like right now?
It feels like a completely different city from what I’m used to, Barcelona at its best; the sun is out and it’s very serene and quiet. A very welcoming change from my time in Copenhagen where I lived for the past 2,5 years. There are no tourists here right now and I get to observe the locals going about their day.

I can imagine that’s something you’re actually quite happy about? Your images feel very intimate without any noise. This must be the perfect time for you to observe, explore and approach new subjects and characters.
Just before you called I was actually talking to an older gentleman, taking a picture of him with his face mask hanging on his chin.
I don’t carry my camera on my body when I approach people, I introduce myself first and only once they’ve agreed to be photographed I take the camera out. I find it to be more humanizing this way. It’s also the perfect icebreaker to meet new people. It was here, in Barcelona, about ten years ago that I first picked up a camera. I had won a camera in school and was travelling back to Europe every year. That summer I had this little pocket camera with me and I got obsessed with following people around and taking pictures. I started travelling more and wanted to capture the people I encountered.

You’re known for getting people in front of your camera and out of their comfort zone. How do people normally react to you when you ask them for a picture?
That really depends on the situation, person and also the culture. I don’t immediately show my camera. I want to create trust and intimacy because I think that shows in my work. Sometimes people are shocked when I ask them, thinking they’re not models and not worthy of a picture. But to me they have an expression that captures me, I find them amusing or I’m intrigued by them. And if they don’t say yes, that’s absolutely fine as well. The photo is not the important part, what means the most to me is the connection I make. So there are times when people don’t want me to take a picture of them but they do invite me into their homes and we have tea or end up in these great conversations. That to me is worth more than any picture I could take. And sometimes they will then ask me to take their picture.

Hence one of our favorite series: “Boys, men and cocks”?
Well, that was actually one of those series that really evolved very organically. I’m always attracted to a certain subject, like men and nature, or water. Things that hold meaning to me. So I had taken a picture of this man with a rooster. And then when it happened again I started to observe and see the process of catching a rooster. It’s not that easy you know. A rooster is like this domesticated lion. So when you put him in a space with another alpha male you witness this dance between dominance, masculine ego, where eventually, one of the two finally succumbs, of vulnerability.

Can you describe your work in three words?
Human, I hope… and maybe a meeting point in between reality and fantasy. Yea that’s it, fantastic realism!

That makes sense, because I think your work provides not only an observing role much like documentary photography. But your characters are also carefully placed, showcasing beauty and vulnerability. Where do intuition and intention come in?
When I first started photographing I lacked intuition but the more I created these narratives, the more I became aware of the things that touched me. I gained conscious emotions. I only highlight beauty and never want to victimize already marginalized communities. I want to go against these stereotypical narratives. I work from my gut, but am very aware of building new visual foundations and not conforming to societal expectations. So there’s always both intuition and intention in my work.

Is that from an artist point of view or from an activist point of view?
I often get asked that question, but I really don’t consider myself an activist. An activist should be as objective as possible, while an artist is always subjective. My work is subjective and it’s my interpretation of the world. Just because I’m a woman, or a person of color, doesn’t mean those are the stories I have to tell. I'm drawn to a theme, a space or a person. Yes, I want to create work that disrupts certain narratives, but I also just want to create something beautiful and meaningful. If you want to be political with your work, go for it, but you shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of always being political as an artist.

How do you like to see your photography evolve?
I’m actually in the middle of hopefully growing as an artist. Last week I moved from Copenhagen to Barcelona to study a master in photography and design. It was actually one of the few schools in Europe I could find where we get to go to class instead of getting your degree via zoom.

But with your work published worldwide, a huge following and multiple expo’s under your belt. Why the need to go back to school?
I think it’s always good to be a student in some way in your life. Most of my photographic journey is self taught, so I wanted to go deeper into the craft and get more technically knowledgeable. Besides that, a big part of my life and work was related to travelling. Due to the pandemic I was forced to find other ways of continuing my practice. Now I get to learn all about studio lighting and how I can use the skills that I already have in a more static way. I think that’s super exciting.

What do you consider your biggest challenge as an artist?
I’m a copywriter and a photographer, obsessed with words, people and imagery. I’m not one thing or the other and that can be challenging. I don’t like to be put in a box, and both mediums are very much part of me in many ways. The more I do both, the more I want to use my images to create stop motion stories and explore how my words can support my photographs.

Have the past couple of months been challenging for you? I mean the pandemic didn’t stop you from moving countries and continuing your practice. So maybe this period has a silver lining for you?
Yeah, it has been quite a ride. It made me redefine my craft, going deeper into my practice but I have to say the pandemic also made my work more meaningful. I didn’t know if people cared about art, but at the peak of the pandemic I did a print sale and people still bought my work. In times like these when people are bound to home they want to create a space that is inspiring and that’s when art comes in. Museums are closed, but music, movies and art are more important than ever.

Do you have a favorite piece of music or movie?
My father is an incredible salsa dancer but he made me listen to all kinds of music: soul, jazz, pop, you name it. At one point I was totally obsessed with The Beatles. Movie wise I love anything Almodóvar. There’s just so much beauty in his storytelling and the writing is genius.I love films with scripts that make me want to watch them again just for the writing alone, like "The Great Beauty". Or recently a film I went twice to the cinema to watch called "Martin Eden." I love going alone to the cinema, to me it's like going to church.

Having lived in so many places, the caribbean, Scandinavia for eight years and now Spain. What does home mean to you?
Home is nowhere, I always say I'm permanently homeless... in a good way! I have no concept of home. To me different places mean something different. Home is not where I was born, it’s not where I live, it’s very much within myself.

Since you’re now a Barcelona local, how are your paella skills?
I make a killer paella but I wouldn’t dare serve it to the locals. I rather make them my famous porridge. It might sound odd, but to me porridge is the ultimate comfort food. And I don’t mean the boring porridge... my porridge is really next level with flavors like turmeric, ginger and spices, or homemade cardamom. Maybe you should just come visit me in Barcelona and you can try for yourself.

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