JAGDEEP RAINA The first time I encountered your work was through a series depicting underground spaces and nightlife. You told me that nightlife for you was not only a subject of interest, but a part of your identity formation as well, particularly growing up in the Puerto Rican diaspora within the Bronx. This really resonated with me in many ways. Coming from diasporic communities myself, I’ve often turned to the archive to imagine what radical realities must have looked like.
ELLE PÉREZ I feel so lucky to have grown up within the underground Bronx punk community during the 2000s. I can tell that it’s affected the way that I conceive of myself, my community, others, and what is possible in ways I can’t fully understand. At the same time, I think I’ve always known how important that experience was and would be, even while it was happening. I knew I needed to photograph it because it was special, and I wanted to do. I was so taken by the people, the situation, the urgency, the passion, the sweat and the physicality of it, while also being aware of the historic possibility of what it was we were doing. I knew I was doing something for posterity, to mark what once was so that others would know that it, and we, had existed. I don’t know how I knew this, but I knew that it might take a while for people to “get it.” I recently put those photographs back on my website. They’re some of my favorite photographs to go back to.
JR What does it mean for you, when you reflect on older bodies of work knowing that you have truly captured a historic moment in time?
EP The artist Simon Leung said something recently that stuck with me, which is that an archive is made primarily for the future. The passing of time allows for the images to engage with history, in that I’m able to track what has happened (personally, politically, socially, environmentally) since their making. For example, the body of work that I did in 2011, “Outliers,” consisted of portraits of genderqueer and gender-nonconforming queer people. In 2011, people were still realizing the potential of Tumblr and Instagram to connect people and affirm and create community, and “genderqueer” was only starting to become popularized online as a term for a particular transgender or trans-adjacent identity.
Now in 2018, gender-neutral pronouns in major cities and media outlets are common-place and growing in acceptance. There are a growing number of non-linear trans narratives available in media and art; I can talk to my doctor at Planned Parenthood about being gender nonconforming and still receive hormone therapy. All of this was unimaginable in 2011. And of course, there is what has not changed. The epidemic of violence against transgender women (the majority of those being black women), the restrictive medical gatekeeping, the extreme rates of homelessness, joblessness, poverty and suicide among transgender and gender-nonconforming people. All of these things can be measured with and against not only my photographs, but the photographs of other image-makers like Mariette Pathy Allen, who were making work that empathetically chronicles trans life long before me.
I think this impulse to create a photographic ledger partially comes from desiring to understand my own and my family’s history, but having that be inaccessible to me. I can trace my family back to my great grandparents, and then it stops. Both my parents’ families are from Puerto Rico, which only did its first census in 1899. Before that, the Spanish did a terrible job of keeping records, and my families were of mixed races, farm workers, domestic workers, and from the rural mountains, so they were not likely to have recorded histories anyway. The great-grandparent I know the most about was a judge in Arecibo that raped my great-grandmother and then paid for her ticket to New York as a way to cover up what he had done. And “what he had done” made my grandmother. He and his family refused to recognize her and my father as relatives for the rest of his life. And yet, she asked me in 2012 to try to find his grave in Barceloneta to make an image of it. I go to the cemetery there every time I’m in Puerto Rico and have never found his grave, but have made many photographs over the years in that cemetery during my search efforts. How do you pick up these pieces? I guess you just start.