Tender, warm, sensitive. These are emotions Western culture doesn’t associate enough with Black and Brown men. But the lens of Dominican photographer Denisse Ariana Pérez is changing that. By highlighting the bond people have with nature, Pérez captures a loving message that celebrates closeness.
Born in the Dominican Republic, but based in Copenhagen, Denisse Ariana Pérez’s global perspective helps her lens meld people and places together. With much of her work to date focused on the lush landscapes and marginalised communities of nations like Tanzania, Benin and Uganda, Pérez’s soft and serene images are interconnected by one consistently reoccurring theme – the presence of water.
“Nature has become the stage in which I place my subjects,” Pérez explains. “Ironically, I was born on a tropical island but I never developed a deep relationship with water until I was an adult.”
Although projects like ‘Men and Water’, ‘Men and Cocks’ and ‘Greens’ showcase a confident eye for intimacy, beauty and community, outside of her “personal clandestine archives”, Pérez has only been taking photography seriously for about three years. She took up the art form after winning a “simple, shitty camera” at her university’s bazaar, which accompanied her on travels to Barcelona the following summer.
Between a flourishing copywriting career and a growing list of notable photo series, for Pérez, these two complementary mediums help express different sides of herself. In terms of her photographic personality, much of Pérez’s work presents people and nature as intrinsically linked. For instance, ‘Men and Water I’ captures a calm stillness as groups of men embrace within an undisturbed lagoon, while its follow-up series sees pairs and solitary figures gracefully steadying themselves amid onrushing whitewater.
“Water became this medium that could allow anyone to float, flow and be.”
This poignant use of water is essential to how Pérez uses photography to challenge harmful stereotypes. With her work serving as a powerful counterpoint to mainstream Western beliefs, her projects proudly display Africa’s landscape as rich and abundant as opposed to the tired images of desolation that we’re often presented. Meanwhile, this elevation of beauty is also paralleled in her depiction of African men as affectionate and warm.
“[Black and Brown men] are not just brawn or objects of sexual desire as they have been historically described in Western societies. They are as complex and multilayered as any other human being. My work seeks to show the nuances of men,” Pérez says.
Although Pérez was raised within the overtly patriarchal and macho structures of the Dominican Republic, she gained an up-close appreciation for the momentary instances of emotional vulnerability that took place around her. Now years later, Pérez has used her first-hand experience with the multifaceted nature of men to create imagery that overcomes trite media representations and showcases how “Black men are not monolithic.”
“I grew up around men,” Pérez describes. “My work in many ways feels like a love letter to the beautiful nuances and paradoxes I observed in the Brown and Black men in my life – my brothers and my father.”
To bring these ideas to a broad audience, Pérez unites art, documentary and fashion photography with a distinctive dreamlike aesthetic. Whether she’s photographing Uganda’s albino community, androgynous models in Turkey or a tender group embrace in Benin, Pérez aims to reimagine the context and composition around the people she photographs.
“I like to capture real people as much as I can, yet I don’t document them in a traditional documentary style,” Pérez explains. “I like to add fantasy to what is already there, to reality.”
Before documenting people from marginalised communities, Pérez believes it’s important to understand both their homeland and personal experiences. From forming local connections on the ground with people who can guide her through cultural nuances to partnering with leading NGOs and community organisations, establishing these fruitful relationships is a major step in her process.
“I make sure I am in these places to learn and immerse myself in the culture as much as I am there to capture. Half of the time, I end up finding my subjects on the street while exploring,” Pérez describes. “I also make it my personal mission to only focus on highlighting people’s beauty and portraying them in a dignified way, especially when telling stories around marginalised communities.”
“I make sure I am in these places to learn and immerse myself in the culture as much as I am there to capture.”
This portrayal of beauty is often expressed in Pérez’ images through movement and action. Having been interested in dance from a young age, this influence manifests itself through her subject’s physical tension and release. As Pérez works with people from a wide range of backgrounds, achieving this sense of flow requires incredible trust between the subject and her camera. In part, Pérez says this level of respect wasn’t fully achieved until she switched to shooting analogue about 18 months ago.
“Unlike with a digital camera, I cannot show them what I am doing as I am taking the photographs. This blind approach begs for more intimacy and trust between the subject and the photographer,” Pérez says.
Similarly, Pérez also discovered shooting film helped her develop a closeness with her work that she hadn’t previously experienced. Where digital photographers sometimes find it hard to ignore the endless technical aspects of image-making, Pérez explains how film drives her to be more attentive and purposeful with her choices.
“I became more intentional with every shot, more observant, more disciplined. You become a curator while shooting, not afterwards,” Pérez says on making the transition to film. “This need from the digital age to look at ourselves on a screen, to fix something about ourselves goes out of the window when you are shooting analogue. All you are left with is intuition, presence and each other.”
“I make it my personal mission to only focus on highlighting people’s beauty and portraying them in a dignified way.”
Alongside directing her subjects and shooting the scene, Pérez also carefully selects the clothing and textures used in each series. In many cases, these materials are drawn from the local community to give her audience another geographical signpost. Other times, Pérez partners with brands that have missions she believes in, such as zero-compromise Swedish fashion label Asket and contemporary ‘humanswear’ designer Art Comes First.
This idea of collaboration is central to how Pérez raises awareness for marginalised communities. Although classic documentary photography can still have a hugely positive impact, she believes these kinds of partnerships can help elevate her message and drive greater reception within the wider population.
As Pérez builds towards the release of her debut photobook by the end of 2020, water and people are still very much on her mind. However, she’s adding Northern Denmark’s cool tones to contrast against her Sub-Saharan work. Meanwhile, there’s also an increased focus on women and gender-fluid figures.
“To me, water became this medium that could allow anyone to float, flow and be. And that is what I look for in my photographs, to enable those in front of my lens to float, flow and be.”