Photographer Focus: DENNESE VICTORIA

Interview by Erin Nøir

How did you get into photography? What or who was your biggest influence to pursue it?

When I was ten, I lived in my grandmother’s house and in it were displayed large copies of John William Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott and My Sweet Rose. Although of course they were both paintings, those were the early images. The camera came in much later; as a required thing for a subject I was to have. So I think, in a way, it’s always been something that’s both just there and something that had to be there. As to why I continue it, I am not exactly sure. My reasons often change and contradict one another. But to have a picture that one would like to look at – I guess for now that’s reason enough.

What is your day job? How do you relate it to your approach and style in photography?

Right now, I am a project officer for the National Commission for Culture and the Arts’ Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan, or the National Living Treasures Award. The work centers on research on the country’s traditional artists. I started late July of this year and things are still very, very new to me. I don’t think it has woven itself yet into my personal work, but I’m encountering new questions and maybe that’s the part that I like best. Especially as someone born and raised in the city. To think of having roots, to think of belonging to a tribe. I feel a bit envious sometimes.

You studied Journalism in college — how differently do you express yourself in terms of words and images? How do they coexist in your works?

I am not a good writer, period. And even if I had studied literature, which I later realized was what I actually liked, I’m sure I wouldn’t have been good at it either. But there’s still something about a word, the right word, when you encounter it. That’s where, to me, I can attempt to come close with images. The feeling of that’s it, that’s exactly it. The moment you recognize what’s under the veil although you can’t see it. The possibility of naming things.  

What is it about themes of memory and personal history that fascinate you?

The contradictions, maybe. The difficulty of it. That both are outside and inside of me. Both gone and yet accessible. The earlier self and the later self. And the idea of having. Of things changing tenses. Is turning into was, the question of will there still be. It’s not very healthy but I do end up fascinated by those things.

Who were your mentors when you participated in the Angkor Photo Workshops? What were the things that you learned by heart through them? How did being part of it change your vision as a lensman?

2012 – I was in Antoine d’Agata and Sohrab Hura’s group. Two favorite things: 1.) Antoine saying my pictures weren’t enough to hurt him, and 2.) Sohrab saying I was depressing and that I needed a workshop to improve my sense of humor. I still don’t know why Antoine thought I wanted to hurt him with images, but what I want my pictures to do is a question I often ask until now. As for Sohrab, I will never forget that he said yes when I asked him if I could see his work – that Nina Simone song, recognizing Masahisa Fukase’s The Solitude of Ravens, the handwriting.

As with the whole experience of going through the workshops, I will always remember it as being no one and then being given a place, knowing nothing and yet being heard. And the feeling of just sitting beside someone, that someone looking at your photographs. Seeing someone else’s photographs. The time given. It’s incredibly generous.

Which photographers or image-based artists do you look up to?

So difficult to limit, but aside from those I’ve already mentioned, there’s: Ann Hamilton, Justine Kurland, Raymond Meeks, Sally Mann, Nan Goldin, Yamamoto Masao, Masahisa Fukase, Kohei Yoshiyuki, and although perhaps a wrong answer, I really want to mention Cy Twombly. Much more difficult to answer locally but hopefully you’ve seen Shireen Seno’s film, Big Boy.

You’ve been working on your personal series, Birds, Curtains, & Objects, since 2011. What “kind” of images are you aiming for – for you to say that this photo story is finished?

I say working since 2011 only because that’s when the first few photos were taken. I recognized the birds only December last year but recently I found a note that said “take more photos of birds?” dated 2012. I don’t know where it’s going to go. Same as how I don’t know where all of us will go. Like how my brother is based in Baler now and I don’t even have a photo that will relate that. It’s already gone through a number of phases. Maybe it will complete when I change, or when I stop. Maybe it will just go on. 2011 isn’t so long ago though.

You will be showcasing your work in Singapore next month for Objectifs, along with other Asian women photographers. How does your femininity reflect in your photographs and, to you, what kind of power does that give to the way you see things through your camera’s viewfinder?

I don’t know how else it could reflect except in the way that I am a woman, and I am in this time, and I am taking these pictures. That already says a lot. I would however like to think that the point of such a space is to show that these things are what some women hold important now. What some women have seen, and what few things some of them have been able to take hold of. It’s a good conversation but not necessarily better nor more important than what some men currently hold important. There are differences, but so as there are in any place where people show up as themselves.

What other photo projects are you currently working on?

The working on term is really hard because I do seem to only follow things and not begin from study. It takes me years to find out what sea it is I’m swimming in and moreover, why. I don’t feel very done yet with the two that I already have, but I am currently trying to collaborate though; hoping that goes well.

Aside from photography, what other creative pursuits are you interested in?

I wish I knew how to sculpt, or had the energy to make a film. And sometimes I wish I knew how to weave. Carpentry also sounds interesting to me. And of course, music. Life is so rich. The trouble is committing the time and space.

All photos © Dennese Victoria from her series, Birds, Curtains, & Objects

“Birds, Curtains, & Objects, is an ongoing project I have on my family. It began as a small book I made for my father as he was leaving. I was hurt and disappointed then. I learned something about him that deeply wounded me. A few years on I guess the project has changed and maybe will keep on changing as the years go by – as I age, as I become more and more forgiving of my parents, or just more and more like them.”

Dennese Victoria (born 1991) is a photographer interested in the themes of memory and personal history. She studied Journalism at the University of Santo Tomas and in 2011, interned for a weekly documentary; filming for them and the team’s other projects until it ended it 2014. She currently works as a Culture and Arts Officer at the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.