Jeremy Dennis_Tea Time_2018_30 x 40 inches

Jeremy Dennis, Tea Time, 2018 © Jeremy Dennis


Jeremy Dennis on Using Photography to Examine Identity

Published Tuesday, Oct 25, 2022

(opens in a new window) Jeremy Dennis is a fine art photographer and a tribal member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation in Southampton, New York. His work explores indigenous identity, culture, and assimilation. In the following interview, Dennis discusses using his artistic practice to examine themes of identity and Indigenous representation.

How would you describe your artistic practice for people who are new to your work?

Jeremy Dennis: My photography explores indigenous identity, cultural assimilation, and the ancestral traditional practices of my tribe, the Shinnecock Indian Nation. Though science has solved many questions about natural phenomena, questions of identity are more abstract, the answers more nuanced. My work is a means of examining my identity and the identity of my community, specifically the unique experience of living on a sovereign Indian reservation and the problems we face.

Digital photography lets me create cinematic images. Nowhere have indigenous people been more poorly misrepresented than in American movies. My images question and disrupt the post-colonial narrative that dominates in film and media and results in damaging stereotypes, such as the “noble savage” depictions in Disney’s Pocahontas. As racial divisions and tensions reach a nationwide fever pitch, it’s more important to me than ever to offer a complex and compelling representation of indigenous people. I like making use of the cinema’s tools, the same ones directors have always turned against us (curiously familiar representations, clothing that makes a statement, pleasing lighting), to create conversations about uncomfortable aspects of post-colonialism. For example, in my 2016 project Nothing Happened Here, stylized portraits of non-indigenous people impaled by arrows symbolize, in a playful way, the “white guilt” many Americans have carried through generations, and the inconvenience of co-existing with people their ancestors tried to destroy.

By looking to the past, I trace issues that plague indigenous communities back to their source. For example, research for my ongoing project On This Site entailed studying archaeological and anthropological records, oral stories, and newspaper archives. The resulting landscape photography honors Shinnecock’s 10,000-plus years’ presence in Long Island, New York. Working on that collection has left me with a better understanding of how centuries of treaties, land grabs, and colonialist efforts to white-wash indigenous communities have led to our resilience, our ways of interacting with our environment, and the constant struggle to maintain our autonomy.

Despite four hundred years of colonization, we remain anchored to our land by our ancient stories. The indigenous mythology that influences my photography grants me access to the minds of my ancestors, including the value they placed on our sacred lands. By outfitting and arranging models to depict those myths, I strive to continue my ancestors’ tradition of storytelling and showcase the sanctity of our land, elevating its worth beyond a prize for the highest bidder.

What informs the content of your work? Are there specific themes that you find yourself responding or returning to?

JD: I am influenced by writers who have published books on similar topics that I have had an interest in learning more about and using this research to create works. The photographs are meant to represent these ideas or vice versa. The themes I keep returning to in my work are Indigenous representation, a retelling of familiar and lesser-known histories, and exploring the representation of decolonization in art. Currently reading history books on my ancestry of being Shinnecock, and bouncing between texts by Winona LaDuke, Bell Hooks, and James Baldwin.

What influences your creative process?

JD: I am most influenced by other contemporary artists. I try to attend and support as many other artists as I can by attending their events and learning more about their processes. With the pandemic, social media has helped me maintain these connections and be inspired by new artists every day.

Can you tell us about your series (opens in a new window) Rise? How has that project informed the ways you use photography as a tool to contend with the legacies of colonial violence?

JD: At the moment, I am interested in the prospect of social justice as it relates to Indigenous land back movements. As an artist, I work to represent an imagined future of potential Indigenous uprisings, or peaceful returns to ancestral lands. In one of my photographic series, Rise, I reflect upon this idea of reuniting with land along with incorporating the historical legacy of the Pequot War, King Philip’s War, and the fear of indigenous people in New England and later throughout the United States. Fear, in this instance, comes from the acknowledgment of our continued presence, not as an extinct people, but as sovereign nations who have witnessed and survived four hundred years of colonization. Playing with recognizable zombie film and TV show iconography, Rise highlights parallels between the apocalyptic rising undead and popular misinformation of indigenous people as a vanished race.

Photography is an important tool for an Indigenous artist because historically, it has helped shaped the narrative of Native peoples as a vanishing race. I also see photography as a tool for providing evidence of our continued presence and recording our resilience as well.

How does your work interact with Shinnecock orature? Has it influenced the ways you observe Indigenous landscapes throughout Long Island?

JD: Much of Indigenous ways of knowing have been passed down from generation to generation through oral storytelling. I try to honor these stories by presenting them in new ways. Each time a story is told, it is changed depending on context and need. In my ongoing project from 2016 titled On This Site - Indigenous Long Island, I have brought together written historical accounts from colonial perspectives and Indigenous narratives in a site-specific way. For too long, we have only valued knowledge that has been written down. Using mapping, photography, and research, I try to create a bigger picture of Long Island's hidden Native histories.

How has (opens in a new window) Ma’s House evolved since its establishment in 2020? How would you like to see it grow?

JD: Since June 2020, my family and I restored my grandmother's home from its certain destruction thanks to crowdfunding and the generosity of family and friends. Thankful for the generosity in allowing this preservation to happen, we decided to dedicate the space to community and art making, especially serving artists of color. Today, we offer free art workshops, are home to a communal library of over 500 Native content books, host a year-round residency program for BIPOC artists, and are partnering with several non-profits in the area to elevate underrepresented artists. One dream project we are working towards is expanding the facilities and building a new detached living space and studio on the property - but it has been difficult where we live to find resources and builders.

How do you think art institutions can meaningfully support Indigenous artists and communities? What action or change would you like to see within the art world?

JD: I would like to see more Indigenous representation in art institutions, including everything from artists being represented and shown, Indigenous accessibility in museums, collections reflecting Indigenous artists, and Native people in staff, consultation, and board positions. This additional representation in art spaces would help alleviate issues of cultural misunderstandings such as exploitation and tokenism that still happens today.

Based on your career so far, is there any advice that you’d give to emerging artists?

JD: I started Ma's House in 2020 thanks to the incredible experiences I have had at other artist residencies and wanting to offer that to other artists. My advice to artists is to try to attend residencies whenever possible if they need space to work or want to network with artists or patrons. If artists have the resources, they could also start their own space for artists.

  • Essays — Jeremy Dennis on Using Photography to Examine Identity, Oct 25, 2022