Documentary photographer, Dennese Victoria is an observer first. An artist based in the Philippines, Dennese approaches photography as something close to her. Her multidisciplinary practice often incorporates photography, moving image, and installation. Capturing quiet moments of people, environment and feelings, her works often is an observational exploration of truth, personal history and an introspective reflection of herself.
What is your background in photography? I was studying writing and then I fell into it. I was 19 and I did an internship at a weekly documentary called Storyline which used to run on one of the television channels here in the Philippines. I wasn’t good at researching for stories nor was I good at identifying people that would be good to interview. I can be very shy at times and so I was mostly just cleaning the office at that point to feel like I was contributing something. One day we were doing an episode on graduations, and they ran out of people to send and shoot video. And so they sent me, an intern, with a DV Handycam, thinking that they used home footage anyway on the episodes and what would be the difference if they sent an intern with zero training.
I remember that I surprised them. And then from then on I remember that they then always made me assist Raymund (Raymund Amonoy) to learn. Several people filmed for the show, and I know stills are different from video, but I do feel he was my first teacher in terms of learning how to pay attention and make records of things that were happening around me.
A year later, in 2012, I was able to attend the workshops at Angkor (several people from Storyline are Angkor alumni and so that’s how I learned about it). And then that world opened for me and I’ve sought out several more teachers ever since.
You studied journalism in university and then went on to work in a documentary TV show. Looking back now - were there any key things you've learnt that you've applied to how you approach your photographic works now?
I think that period of working there drew a large enough map for me in terms of deciding how and where to move. Sometimes I went away from familiar routes (such as when I made Days Spent with Pretend Family) and sometimes I needed to go back “home” in some sense (for instance I feel like filming for Shireen Seno’s Nervous Translation was a kind of home). I’ve tried to erase that map (as all children need to grow), found and tried other ways of making a living, but this map is always there with me. I know that I’m always seeking to listen, seeking to be moved by what’s in front of me, seeking to feel, feeling for life, trying to make records to bring back with me.
And sometimes I feel some guilt around burdening a photograph with such expectations and I want to set it free. I want it to be light and I don’t need it to win a grant. But then I’m too aware of the map and moving too far makes me nervous. And it’s a constant dance. I worry about wasting other people’s time. But I also worry about whether I am being honest enough by expressing myself completely.
I want to say I’m an artist but mostly what I do is I listen, and I think, and after what seems to be a long back and forth between those two, I tend to make something close to photography.
In 2016, Dennese Victoria began working on a project called a "fake family album," exploring the concept of faking intimacy and the pressure to perform for images.
A photograph from 'Days Spent with Pretend Family'
In 'Days Spent With Pretend Family', you started working on a fake family album. How did this project came to be? It has been five years since I closed the project and so writing about it isn’t as easy. Not that it doesn’t speak to me anymore, but I feel far away from the person who needed to work with photographs that way.
When I think about it now, maybe what happened is that I wasn’t careful with the way I used my attention. Photographing, or filming, is still seeing and I think at that time (I was a few years out of university) I just suddenly found myself feeling very disillusioned about the work that I was doing.
Meeting people, listening to their stories, and then trying to translate that point of contact into images used to be so special to me. But then because I was doing it so often, I became careless and forgot just how generous it was that I was even allowed witness inside other people’s lives.
I remember wanting to make this project because I lost faith in that meeting. Doubt grew where I once had total belief in the value of meeting to make photographs, or records, or stories.
I saw many things that were not beautiful about people. And then when the project ended I had to face everything that was ugly about myself.
It took a long time but I’ve since recovered this belief in contact. But I’m still rebuilding trust in myself. I’m still relearning how and why to make and share photographs.
What was your objective on this project? Was it an exploration of some sort for you as a photographer? I’m not sure if I start projects with objectives. They don’t begin like that for me. They are always feelings in response to the life I am living and feelings always find a way of making themselves real.
I made it during a workshop with Jörg Brüggemann and Tobias Kruse and the workshop’s theme was on youth and the future, but really that idea had been with me for some years. I saw it as film at first, and thought I’d force myself to play in it. But I’m glad I made photographs instead. Otherwise it would have been harder to pull myself out of those feelings. I’m glad I feel the desire to photograph again. I think the best thing I received from Jörg and Tobi was permission.
This is a photograph of my youngest brother. I made it as a part of days spent with 'Pretend Family' even though of course, he is my real brother. he’s in both the real and the pretend series of photographs which i love because it tells me so much about why i made days.
I was left with him sometime in 2016 when most of my family moved overseas. he was still studying at the time. i didn’t like needing to be, in some sense, his new mother. I felt like i gave up a lot because i needed to be home. I wasn’t good at it and maybe I made him feel like he was holding me back.
We’ve talked a lot about it over the years. I’ve learned to be more reassuring towards him. and if anything I know that i really needed to learn what it means to come home too, and how to make myself feel at home.
The mother in this project is someone I used to work with when I was working at the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. I was in the cultural communities and traditional arts subcommission, and she was working on the travel grants program. The twins are her real daughters. My real brother plays a part. And the house belongs to filmmakers John Torres and Shireen Seno. I made it from 2016 to 2017. The father, meanwhile, is someone we found on facebook through a casting call. I did several interviews and then I let her choose from the list of the people who applied.
It cost me a lot to make this project. Since the father was an actor I needed to afford his fee. I also realized I don’t enjoy telling people exactly what to do and so some days are long days of preparing a real environment wherein I could wait for something to happen. I also lent a point and shoot film camera to the twins.
After the project was first exhibited, I went with the mother on her real family trip to an island north of the Philippines called Batanes. It was really beautiful and she was there with her partner and her father. It had been a long-held dream of hers to fly her father to that island. I went with them thinking I would make photographs (and I did) but they didn’t feel like part of the project anymore. The need to make pretend had ended. I ended that project wanting truth and admitting it to myself made me immediately surrender.
Many of your works revolves around a personal approach. Do you start with an idea first? Or a feeling? Or do you let the work take you along?
I would say all of them are personal. I’ve rarely been able to have photography as a source of income. It’s video that I have been able to hold as work.
I think I like photography the most when it’s close to life. They happen (the making of the photograph but more so the point of releasing them) when I’m ready to face something that I’ve been avoiding. I understand how to make projects, how to find stories, because in many ways inquiry is what you learn studying journalism. But something else has to move me enough to risk making something, risk saying something, risk involving myself in someone else’s life.
And I see that risk both ways. And more often now, more than other people trusting me, I need to know I can trust myself before I go ask for time.
This overthinking slows me down and often works against me, but if I go back to what led me to make Days, I just want to believe I can go slow before letting people into my life, and even slower in letting myself into other people’s lives. Because we can change each other by meeting, by asking, by mirroring things to each other, and I want to be more careful and caring as I, or if I indeed make the approach. I will still make a lot of mistakes I know, but I never not want to care about it.
How would you describe your photography style?
I don’t know. These days I say artist because it’s the most unspecific. The last work I did had me working with letters and ash and making beads out of rose petals and so many things come to mind when I think about what I want to go for next. But my photographs are always quiet and often looking at something tender or tenuous. They’re very simple and easy to make I would say. It’s the time and situation before and after I get to make one that’s more layered and complex. I also feel like more people respond to the way I write than the photographs that I make.
Last year, you collaborated on a zine with Lee Chang Ming. Can you share some more information about the zine?
Is it a zine or a book? comfort book for nervous children has his photographs and my writing. I hope I’m correct that it’s our second time working together (the first one was indeed a zine called A Pure Person) but I met him in the same workshop where I made Days. That was in 2015. This time he was participating in a program by Objectifs called Site Unseen and decided to start a project looking at both text and images called Conversations. He asked me to be one of the writers.
What was your approach like working on a collaboration zine? Because we’ve worked together before, he probably knows that I tend to not feel like following the original instructions. And so he has been very trusting of me in terms of letting me find my own way of responding to his invitations.
He sent me a folder of photographs and told me I could write whatever I wanted; that I was free to play with the selection, with the order, and then finally with the design of the book.
We began with me trying to find out what it was that he wanted to feel with the project. I can’t remember whether I saw the photographs first before deciding on things but eventually I told him I would write as a mother to her son. For some reason it was the first impulse that came to me when he invited me to write.
He decided to call it poetry but I don’t feel confident enough to use that word and so to me they are notes. I wrote it thinking of him, and how I know him. I also thought about some people we both know. I brought in memories from my life before I was busy with images and when I was just a student.
He prepared a folder for me to select photographs from but of course I looked online for everything he had made and shared, and I asked for a couple of those to be included in the book.
I learn a lot from Chang Ming. I’m not good at letting go. I’m not good at showing up for myself or believing my work is ready, but I always learn to give myself a chance whenever we work or talk to each other.
What influences your photographic works? All of life. How my friends and people I’ve met approach their own practice and live their own lives.
I feel like seeing Czar (Czar Kristoff) change again and again has freed me. And I feel like I have learned a lot from Lesley (Lesley-Anne Cao) and Judy (Judy Freya Sibayan). Seeing John (John Torres) and Shireen (Shireen Seno) make films and live their lives also comfort me because it shows me that there are many ways to make work and find space. And meeting all the people that Angkor (Angkor Photo Festival) has brought into my life has always kept me human even when it was tempting to just stop feeling.
When I was younger I imagined success as going far or winning something, an exhibition, a grant, a scholarship, and maybe these things are still a measure of success, but I found that in my life whenever I do look to go far, there was always something undone near me, someone unwitnessed, a feeling uncared for properly. I was always in touch with something, or someone, or some place that needed tending to. I share this because I try to keep believing in the work that wants to move through me and the work that I can do. I do wish to grow and become better and of course I dream of succeeding too, but I am also open to embracing whatever work I get to make in this life. I have this gut feeling that I’ve met so many people that have been beautiful and important in my life and that I can spend the next 10 years just getting to know them better, just trying to be more present with them.
What are you up to these days? Any new projects in the works? I just finished a project called flowers for. A few years ago in 2019 I collected handwritten letters of sorrow and grief for a residency where I promised to “hold other people’s sorrow for a while”.
I ended up burning the letters with some flowers (I also promised that no documentation of what was written in those letters would be made) and kept the ashes with me just until this group exhibtion in January.
It closed February 4 and so now I just feel like going back to learning more and practicing in quiet until such time I have something that might be meaningful to share again. I admit I do feel like hiding after each time I release something. I’m working on being more at peace with being seen and being known maybe.
On a more daily life kind of note, I need to relearn cinematography. I’ve been shooting since 2011 and yet I still don’t know how to set-up the lights or even what they are called. I’ll try to save money for most of the year and then when I have enough maybe I’ll approach someone if I can apprentice.
Check out more of Dennese Victoria works here