In an era where a strong distinction between visuals and words is so evident - Caribbean-born, Copenhagen-based Denisse Ariana Pérez is a holistic magician combining the creative lobes. As a copywriter and photographer, she is obsessed with words, people and imagery trying to find ways to make everyone speak to one another. Her vocation is assisted by vast talent and a great passion for humankind in a gentle and exquisite manner.
We spoke with Denisse about her work and one magnificent series titled: “Albinism, Albinism II - an Exploration of Light, Nature and Albinism in East Africa".
Hi Denisse, first of all how are you these days?
I am doing well, safe and healthy. I had just come back from traveling, I arrived exactly a week before the borders closed in Denmark.
Can you tell us a bit about your creative work and processes?
If I had to summarize it as succinctly as possible I would say my work focuses on highlighting beauty and human emotion. My process is simple, my gut goes after the subjects it feels connected to and then I attempt to create intimate scenes around them.
You deal with both images and words - how does that go together?
Well, I am both a creative copywriter and a photographer. I have a deep love for words and for aesthetics (especially for human faces). Right now I practically have two careers and I'm still learning how those two coexist together as professional roles. What I do know is that for me they feel like two mediums of expression that complement one another, just like the left side of the brain complements the right one.
What attracts you to work and photograph in Africa?
I grew tired of the continuous negative narratives around Africa. I find so much beauty all throughout the continent, so much purity, so much energy. That vibrancy is what I wanted to focus on and highlight and that is what I have been doing ever since I first visited some years ago. I grew up in the Caribbean, in the Dominican Republic, a country with such a troubled relationship with race, a place where blackness was denied rather than celebrated.
A part of me feels like my inner child captures the images she wishes she had seen back then. A celebration of black skin, like the skin of my father and his ancestors.
Your aesthetics are strong and beautiful and you bring a fresh look on masculinity. How do you define masculinity through your documentation of men?
I like to capture boys and men through a sensible and sensitive lens. Black men, in particular, are often represented with toughness and in a hypersexualized light and I want to stray away from that. I like to showcase my subjects in a more raw yet elevated stance, I'm not interested in portraying facades. I like to unravel layers when I photograph. Hopefully, I get to peel away some of the layers the men I photograph have constructed about themselves.
I was raised amongst men, my brothers, and my father, so I had to both learn to challenge traditional masculinity and embrace my own masculinity. I had to redefine what masculinity meant and how it complements my femininity. I think we as people are more wholesome beings when we learn to embrace both of those energies in ourselves. Someone once asked me why I mainly photograph men, as if to suggest that I had to photograph women in order to be a feminist artist. The truth is that when I look at my portraits of men it is there where I can find my sensitivity, or my "femininity" if we were to call it that, in its most vivid form. It is in these portrayals of men that I see the masculinity I want to see and in many cases already see.
How do you communicate with your subjects in such a way that brings a strong sense of trust and ease to the photographs?
It depends on the setting. It can go from people volunteering to pose for me to using a translator in a foreign country to fully express my vision. The most key thing for me is to establish a sense of trust between me and the subject first and this can be done without sharing a common language sometimes.
I introduce myself first, not my camera. I want people to feel seen which is the main reason I take photographs. Once a sense of trust is established then the photographing can begin. I mostly document people who are not models, they are real people who sometimes are shocked by the fact that I want to photograph them. A lot of times, I feel like the most important part of what I do is acknowledging another person, telling them that I find them beautiful, with the awareness that this might be the first time they are ever told that.
Can you tell us a bit more about the "Albinism, Albinism" series?
“Albinism, Albinism - An Exploration of Light, Nature and Albinism in East Africa" is an ongoing photographic project of mine. The series is meant to capture the beauty of boys born with albinism - an absence of pigmentation in the eyes and skin and hair. It is meant to create awareness through beauty, highlighting its subjects rather than portraying them as victims.
I first became interested in the subject after seeing a VICE piece of the albino activist Josephat Torner on the internet. Serendipitously enough, as I was in Tanzania shooting a photo-series on LGBTQI+ people in East Africa, I ran into him during a junior football match. Afterward, we met for lunch and he decided to invite me to return to Tanzania in the summer alongside his team for "International Albinism Awareness Day" in Dodoma.
The first edition of the series was shot in Tanzania this past June, a country with a history of violence, murder, and segregation against albinos. I was lucky enough to meet the former Prime Minister of Tanzania, a man who made it his personal project to end the persecution of albinos in his country. He himself ended up adopting over a dozen albinos and provided them a home and paid for their education, they truly became his children. Under his command, there have been no reported violent attacks on albinos for the last couple of years. The second edition of the series was shot in Uganda, a country where albinos don't face looming persecution like in other neighboring countries but still grapple with the lack of access to proper healthcare, sunscreen, protective eyewear, and well-paying jobs. The young men presented in this series come from different walks of life, from an activist to an art student to a professional dancehall musician.
The men in this series are in a very "spiritual state of mind", most of the time not looking at the camera, why did you create this element?
A camera can be an intimidating object for a lot of people, I find that sometimes there is a more honest expression in not looking directly into it when taking a portrait. In a lot of my portraits, the subjects are not looking into the camera for this particular reason.
In regards to photographing people with albinism, we also need to bear in mind that this is a condition that does not only limit itself to their skin, but also to their eyesight. A lot of albinos are partially blind and/or suffer from a condition referred to as "dancing eyes." With this being said, I had to both photograph them in the way I wanted to while also adapting to the movements of their eyes and simultaneously protecting them from the sunlight as much as possible.
Follow Denisse Instagram account here.