Photographer Denisse Ariana Pérez talks her inaugural publication, Agua – an ode to water and its mystical qualities
“I’m not interested in capturing reality just as it is,” says photographer Denisse Ariana Pérez. “I want to bring an element of fantasy into it.” A peruse of her beautiful debut photobook, Agua, reveals exactly what she means. As its title suggests, the book centres on water or, more specifically, humans interacting with water in a series of transportative photographs captured in Uganda, Senegal and Denmark.
A man drapes himself gracefully over a white horse, grey-blue water lapping at their legs; a woman floats nude in a pool of quarry water, her figure silhouetted against its cloudy surface; a man dressed in black holds a flower to his face, standing in a stretch of orange water which gives way to a milky blue beyond.
Born and raised in the Caribbean, Pérez grew up surrounded by water but she only began committing it to film in recent years. “I had a spiritual awakening of sorts around three and a half years ago,” she tells AnOther over Zoom from her home in Barcelona. “My work changed a lot after that; I had more purpose. I knew that I wanted to travel to Africa and document the continent in a different way – to find beauty in the places that often aren’t considered beautiful or are associated with scarcity.”
On her travels, she found herself repeatedly drawn to waterscapes, and to photographing people (“especially men”) within them. “I started questioning why that was and realised it’s the element I feel most connected to. That made me want to explore it more; to hopefully transmit the feeling it gave me to others.”
This marked the start of what Pérez terms her “aquatic journey”, capturing “different types of water, people, and hues” to reflect the “expansiveness, universality and fluidity” of water itself. She began in the Lake Victoria region of Uganda, before moving on to the pink lakes of Senegal. Her intention was to finish the project in southeast Asia but when the pandemic struck she had to set her sights closer to home – which, at the time, was Denmark. “The peculiarity of the Nordic landscapes actually made for a great contrast.”
While both the bodies of water and the human bodies that fill Agua’s pages constantly shift in form and tone, an overriding sense of calm pervades. Ever since taking up photography as a college student in New York, Pérez has centred her work around people, she explains, and her ability to foster trust with her subjects is tangible. “For me the process is more important than the photos. I hope to create a space where people can let go of their facades and their thoughts for a moment. Water can be calming but it can also be powerful and frightening.”
For each shot, Pérez would wade into the water too, talking with her subjects and doing meditative breathing exercises. Frequently her figures strike almost choreographed poses, something she reflects usually happened organically once they found their flow. “Some people [featured] are actually dancers, but I was also capturing these ethereal movements from those who aren’t.” The resulting tome is a powerful celebration of the poetic symbiosis between humans and the element we so rely on, while providing a dreamy means of visual escapism just when we need it most.
Agua by Denisse Ariana Pérez is available for pre-order now, published by Guest Editions. Ten per cent of profits will be donated to FACE Africa, bringing clean water and sanitation programmes to rural communities across Africa.