If there’s a conventional way to share photography, Denisse Ariana Pérez’s had in been circulated in a way that is anything but. Her photography was shared on the internet in the form of a racist meme.
“One, Two, Three Boys in the Senegal River” featured a portrait photo of a boy in the river. The photo circulated across the internet in the form of a racist, offensive meme captioned “when you’re eating Cocoa Puffs and there is only one left.”
The photos were also circulated without credit in a tweet to which Pérez replied “always credit artists for their work. Always. Always.”
“The series got posted by this art publication called Ignit, which is amazing,” she said. “It got reposted by a lot of art publications that I follow and I admire, so I was very excited. Eventually, because [the photos] already had some traction, some people started writing to me and said ‘it is your picture? It has been used as a meme.’ The people who sent it to me also said ‘you’re not credited in it, but the meme is kind of racist.'”
Pérez was shocked and disappointed when she saw the meme.
“I remember thinking, ‘this is not even funny,'” she said. “It was very insensitive. But then it became viral. Snoop Dog posted it on his Instagram. I was not credited, and I was thankful. By comparison, that [meme] bothered me a lot less than the [uncredited] tweet situation. My subjects trust me that I have every good intention to their photo. Then there’s this kid who is turned into this what I find very unfunny meme. I know that he’s never going to see it, but I know the process but for me it was just bizarre.”
Pérez attempted to get her work taken down from Instagram but to no avail. According to her, the copyright laws in the European Union were not so strict when she took the pictures, but she tried in vain to take the post down from social media.
She sent a message to Instagram saying “The image in its original version (not the meme version) has been posted and shared in other accounts but I was always credited in those. I do not want my work to be affiliated with the meme version of the photo. I believe it is insensitive to use someone’s art without consent.”
Perez photographs individuals from all different scopes of the world. Her work spans from Senegal and Vietnam to Cuba and Japan. Her work captures the unique cultures and ethnicities of the area. Many of her photos are very naturalistic and capture the lives of everyday people in opposition to a staged photo shoot with a model.
She is also a copywriter, which mean she works in a creative studio and think of different creative mediums for brands.
As a copywriter, Pérez’s livelihood has influenced her work.
“My job is more to conceptualize and think of ideas, create communions for brands, basically,” she said. “I think [photography and copywriting are] related.”
She paused for a second to connect the two.
“I think they’re both about giving a story to something,” she said. “Even if it’s an idea, a brand, or in my case photographically translating reality into a form of a story. Into my own interpretation of what I see.”
Even though Pérez’s work focuses on portraits of people around the world, she doesn’t see herself as a documentary photographer.
“I think that I interpret what is already there. However, I’m composing [by] using what is already there. I like to reshape it in a way, but not too much [to] preserve some rawness to everything that I do,” she said.
“When I was younger, I was just focused on capturing the very sort of hyper-stimulated eyes in the world. I was just capturing people, always people. I appreciate nature but I’m just obsessed with people.”
Pérez says that her initial photography was not focused on the purpose of meaning, but her artistic voice grew about a year and a half ago. She said someone wrote to her saying “thank you for portraying my country in this way.” That response made Pérez look at photography a different way, and she now looks for stories in the places she travels to. For example, she likes to document women’s organizations or afro communities in South America.
“I think things changed after that,” she said. “It was more about creating an elevated and dignified portrayal of beauty. It was not about documenting anymore. For me, it was just paying tribute [and] there’s a level of conciseness. When I photograph, I have to ask myself ‘am I highlighting this person?'”
“The subject themselves, a lot of the time do not understand why I’m photographing them,” Pérez said.
She says that her process is very guttural and organic. She stops people just to photograph them, and sometimes she doesn’t even end up capturing them but still ends up forming a bond with her intended subject. Still, she values each and every individual she connects with.
The world, however, sometimes seems too beautiful for Pérez to capture with a camera lens.
“It’s like when you see a beautiful sunset and you take a photograph but you know it’s never going to live up to real life,” she said of capturing subjects through only a camera lens.
As a biracial woman, Pérez’s subconsciousness influences her photography. As a native-born Caribbean woman, she connects with her heritage.
“I remember the first time I went to Cuba by myself… to take portraits. My mom is white and my dad is black. So I showed them to my dad, who had a love for Cuba and raised me on Cuban music basically. The first thing he said was ‘oh, these are all great. But then you go to Cuba only to take pictures of black people.’ I laughed at first, and I said ‘what are you talking about? I was not chasing the people in Cuba.’ And then he said to look at them because the majority [were of black people]. Then I looked at them and it was true.”
Pérez then elaborated.
“In the moment, it’s very guttural, and years back there was less sensitive conciseness around it. I knew that I was enamored with Cuba because it’s truly like the rainbow land and there are people of every color, of every hairstyle. It was the place that I grew up, but it was so different in that way. There was no suppression of anything that was Afro. Which in the Dominican Republic there’s so much suppression of history and culture,” Pérez said.
Pérez mentioned that as she has gotten older, she’s drawn to groups of people that she likes to celebrate and explore, such as queer communities, though she isn’t queer herself.
“I’m an ally and a lot of my best friends are queer. I’m very interested in their stories and people of Afro-descent. I find so much beauty in Afro people,” she said. “Yes, there’s the beauty I that I see, but I think sometimes it’s kind of my inner child creating something and sort of manifesting this beauty that I get to finally see, and a part of my bloodline is inceptive. Sometimes I’m excited to show it to my dad and say ‘see how beautiful this is.'”
To summarize the way her upbringing influences her work, Pérez said, “I think it’s just my inner child translating and writing love letters.”