Q&A: Elle Perez

By Rafael Soldi

Elle Pérez was born and raised in the Bronx, NY and currently lives and works in New York City. Pérez received a BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2011, and an MFA from the Yale School of Art in 2015. Pérez works with and within the communities heavily featured in their photographs and films; works which address themes of resilience, identity, and youth. Pérez has been awarded the Theo Westenberger Prize for Photography, a Bronx Council of the Arts artist grant, and the Jane Meyer Photography Fellowship. In 2015 Pérez attended the Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture. Pérez currently teaches at Williams College (Williamstown, MA) as an invited Visiting Lecturer in Art.

Rafael Soldi: How did you become aware of the people that came to become the subjects in your photographs? Tell us about your own journey connecting with these communities and people “from the margins”?

Adrain Chesser:  In 2007 I attended a Native American ceremony called the Naraya, at Short Mountain, Tennessee. That’s where I met Timothy White Eagle, Finisia Medrano and JP Hartsong. I was in awe, I had never seen anything like them. Visually and energetically they were archetypal—archetypes that I wasn’t even aware of yet. So when I learned how Finisia and Hartsong were living, my head and my heart just kind of exploded. I knew that I had to follow them and explore this way of being photographically, also I needed to understand why I felt drawn to this way of life and to these amazing people. So I moved out West to make the work that became The Return. My own personal journey of why I am drawn to work with people “from the margins” started when I was
a child. Growing up gay in a small town in Florida, internally I was painfully aware of being “other” somehow different than everyone else, but outwardly I was having a white middle class childhood. So I have always been drawn to people who visually express their “otherness.” Drag queens, transgendered people, flamboyant people of all stripes no matter if they are straight or gay, people who because of the way they choose to express themselves, are often marginalized. Collaborating with them to make photographs is a way in which I can honor their experience of being human while expressing a hidden truth of who I am.

RS: You once mentioned that this book carries spirit with it. There is an important element to your practice that goes beyond the production of photographs; it involves ritual, prayer, myth, and an acute spiritual awareness. Can you elaborate on the rolethese peripheral notions play in the making of your work?

AC: I have always considered photography to be my highest spiritual practice. I was raised to be a pentecostal preacher but because of the deep conflict between who I was and the religious dogma of the church, I had to abandon the notions of God that I was given as a child. So I turned to photography and art as a way of interpreting
my life. In 2004 I made a body of work titled “I have something to tell you” where I used the inherent ritualistic nature of photography and image making to heal deep seated emotional wounds from my childhood. So when I realized that this experiment had been successful I started to incorporate more active forms of prayer and spiritual practices into my photographic practice. When I met the ritualist Timothy White Eagle, who had been exploring traditional forms of ceremony, a collaboration became a next logical step in these explorations.

RS: What is your relationship to the people in your photographs? Are they merely a subject or active collaborators?

AC: We have always intended for this work to be a sort of mythic portrait of a people a place and an ideal. I don’t feel that it is documentary in the classic sense. I consider the subjects of The Return to be active collaborators, we worked to create images that expressed a higher truth. The subjects of The Return have become my extended family, I have a deep love and respect for all of them.

RS: Can you talk about your collaborative process with Timothy White Eagle?

AC: It’s a seemingly unlikely collaboration and one that is not always so easy to describe. We created a dialogue about the spiritual nature of the way in which these people live, the spiritual nature of art, and the ways in which archetypal energies work in mythic story telling. When we traveled to work on the project our expeditions would become an extended ceremony. We were in constant prayer asking spirit to help us make images that would be more than just a document of the way these people live, that we would create objects of transcendence speaking to a higher truth. There is another aspect of our collaboration that’s harder to express, the idea of holding space. How the act of being a witness to the making of an image, changes the image. How that anyone who is present at the moment an image is made becomes a collaborator, even if they are not the subject or the photographer, their presence becomes part of the magic of the moment, there by effecting the final object.


All images ©Elle Perez