Stolen lands and living stories: A photographer reimagines reality

Jeremy Dennis confronts historical narratives by composing digital illustrations.

 

The Nightmare from “Rise,” 2019

Photographer Jeremy Dennis’ work explores Indigenous identity, culture, oral tradition and land dispossession. Using digital photography and editing techniques, he creates eclectic images that combine tropes from mainstream consciousness — everything from Henry Fuseli, whose early 19th-century paintings were infused with the supernatural, to contemporary zombie movies — with images from Indigenous culture and landscape.

Dennis, a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, was raised on the reservation in Southampton, New York, and has worked closely with the land he grew up on. His 2016 project On This Site spotlights sacred or otherwise culturally significant Native American landscapes on Long Island using photography and an interactive online map. An ongoing project, The Sacredness of Hills, seeks to preserve burial sites that developers routinely desecrate. As an artist-in-residence at the Santa Fe Art Institute, Dennis is working on a series that challenges The Lazy, the colonial perception that the land in what is now the United States was uncultivated, uninhabited and therefore at settlers’ disposal. 

Dennis is also inspired by oral tradition. In his 2013 series Stories — Indigenous Oral Stories, Dreams and Myths, Dennis staged images derived from myths and legends to create evocative photographs that provoke visceral emotion, bringing a sense of reality to stories that might feel distant from contemporary life.

Dennis spoke with High Country News at the Santa Fe Art Institute. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

High Country News: How do you see digital photography interacting with oral expressions of art? Is it a way of maintaining the vitality of oral narratives?

Jeremy Dennis: Painting is what I look to more often than photography for inspiration and reference material. I always say that if I were better at painting, I would be a painter. Between oil paint’s turpentine and darkroom emulsion, I found that digital photography allowed me to pursue the same subject of portraiture and use the skills of painting for burning and dodging for my later digital collages.

The conscious choice of combining mythology and creation stories with photography is a means to transform spiritual narratives from a secular perspective into something concrete and tangible. Although my work uses heavy digital manipulation and post-production, the layers and source materials always come from reality. All of my series and individual images are influenced by a text reference — I find something that resonates with me and attempt to represent the sentiment or message behind the text in an image. The texts come from an array of historical narratives from my Indigenous ancestry, Indigenous creation stories, personal accounts of interactions with Native peoples, and newspaper articles.

In my own view of the creation stories, there is a skepticism I feel until the images are there in front of me. The stories go from text on-page to experiencing something and trying to put together the different elements, rather than trying to believe what one is seeing to be real. I also believe in the idea of stories changing over time to reflect the current reader, whether that’s turning ancient stories into movies or changing the elements based on what is relevant to the audience. In my photography, there’s no certainty to capture even a specific scene. The ambiguity is a strength that allows the viewer to find their own way into what might seem to be a specific story.

HCN: What are some of the reactions you’ve gotten?

JD: For each project it’s different. My more recent projects on decolonization/post-colonization have been quite polarizing. As they are portrait series, they require volunteer models to be quite vulnerable to represent difficult themes of conflict. Sometimes, as I propose the project to people, they understand the importance behind the project immediately. Others feel as if they are being personally attacked or held responsible for what is being represented in the project. It’s my belief that there is a bit of truth on both sides of those reactions. 

HCN: Have those reactions impacted your career?

JD: I’ve been very lucky to work collaboratively with many other artists to complete my portraits and have been fortunate to receive great opportunities to share my work in publications and exhibits. However, one of the obstacles is making the work I enjoy making commercial enough to sell. That’s the dream: to create work that you love and that has meaning but also to have others be so committed that they want to purchase it and have it on their wall. The images I am producing now bring up difficult questions that make it even more difficult to sell. I’ve had success in selling open edition books and catalogs, but that’s also a large effort to edit and sell.

HCN: Is that a challenge with your site-based work as well? 

JD: In 2016, right out of grad school, I applied for and received the Dreamstarter Grant for an arts and culture project from Running Strong for American Indian Youth, co-founded by Billy Mills from the Oglala Sioux Nation in South Dakota. I set out to research, transcribe documents, locate, photograph and preserve sacred sites throughout Long Island. Growing up on a very small reservation, which has always felt like home and a place of belonging, the project became a way of standing where my ancestors once stood and symbolized a new sense of belonging to lands that were historically stolen, as if we were not there to witness it happening.

This project, titled On This Site, was really the first time I pursued landscape photography and site-specific work. From my firsthand experience of how those around me perceived Indigenous people and our history, it seemed as if there were an overall apathy, due to the amount of time that has passed since the land theft and injustices that occurred during the forming of our nation. To overcome this misunderstanding, I used place rather than the traditional timeline to share our story and history — to show that these compelling narratives have happened in nearly each of our backyards and are something that cannot be ignored.

Untitled from “The Lazy,” 2019

HCN: Tell me about your current projects.

JD: At Santa Fe Art Institute, I proposed a project that looks at the history of land dispossession in the U.S. in relation to the vacant spaces that are ubiquitous in our country. The histories and themes relate to The Lazy, the idea that in the colonists’ eyes, the lands didn’t look cultivated and developed in the same ways as their own country, and so must be uninhabited and free to use. Even today, this idea is held in relation to resource extraction and optimization of harvesting.

For this project, I brought with me a traditional Eastern Woodlands regalia that would have been worn pre-contact, which I will wear for self-portrait photography in front of vacant storefronts in Santa Fe. These images will represent, in one sense, that these spaces are symbolic of the history of land theft from Indigenous people and yet wasted today. But in a more humorous light, I also see them in relation to the midnight release of the latest phone. Imagine people camping outside of a store to get the first phone for the biggest release — but for my project, these figures stand to be the first to utilize the empty stores as potential art and communal spaces.

Two other concurrent projects I am passionate about are called Rise and The Sacredness of Hills. Rise looks at the history of the Pequot War (1637) and King Philip’s War (1667) in New England and its legacy today, among other themes, including the various pan-Indian occupations such as the Occupation of Alcatraz (1969), Occupation of Wounded Knee (1973), BIA takeover (1972) and DAPL (2016).

The Sacredness of Hills has a similar goal to On This Site, which is to preserve sacred burial sites surrounding my reservation in Southampton. It is routine for developers to desecrate sacred burial grounds and willingly destroy human remains found while digging. United States law requires Indian cultural items and burials on federal lands to be properly dealt with. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, approved in 1990, established procedures for returning materials to descendants and culturally affiliated tribal organizations. However, in New York, state and private lands are not covered, which means that even if there is large news coverage of human remains being found and the public knows, the owner of the lot still has last say if they want to continue construction. My project aims to create empathy and show that these are people that are being displaced and disregarded for luxurious homes that are often only occupied for weeks within the year.

Jeremy Dennis’ work is part of the show Surreal Histories at Hellgate Arts from March 13-April 12, 2020, and the show Telling Stories: Changing the Narrative at the Parrish Art Museum from May 3-July 26, 2020. You can learn more about Dennis’ work at www.jeremynative.com and follow him on Instagram @jeremynative.

Disclosure: Annabella Farmer posed for Dennis’ project Rise.

Annabella Farmer is a student at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Email HCN at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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