BTN LiveBIG: Penn State grad finds his roots through photography
When Jeremy Dennis came to Happy Valley about two years ago, he was hoping to expand his horizons. Already a graduate of Stony Brook University, New York, he applied for the master of fine arts in photography program at Penn State.
Dennis travelled to University Park for an interview with Lonnie Graham, a professor of studio art at Penn State, totally unaware that Graham and the university would help propel his photography and artwork into a grand project titled “On This Site.”
“I came to Penn State to interview with him [Graham] before I applied,” Dennis said. “He reviewed my portfolio, and he liked what I was doing. Throughout the two years, I spoke with him a lot to formulate this idea. From the beginning, he was really encouraging to pursue this project [On This Site]. So that was a huge influence on my decision to go to Penn State.”
Through his artwork, Dennis highlights the history and mythology of First Nation people, as well as many of the issues commonly faced by the Native American community. On This Site is an extension of that work, using photography to preserve and create awareness of culturally significant Native American locations throughout Long Island, N.Y.
This history hits close to home with Dennis, who is a member of the Shinnecock community located in Southampton on the east end of Long Island. With the exception of his seven years away at school, he’s lived on the reservation there his whole life.
“I’ve always wondered about how the Shinnecock people and the reservation became located where they are today and the history behind their previous settlements throughout Long Island.” Dennis said. “Using photography, I did a lot of archaeological research and anthropological research trying to answer these questions.”
The themes in his work often outline the hardships of indigenous peoples. He aims to aesthetically address topics such as substance abuse, domestic violence, sovereignty issues and spirituality. On This Site takes a very similar angle.
“Self-esteem is a pretty common issue in a lot of indigenous communities, especially in my own life, just a feeling of not belonging. Growing up in public school systems, you never really hear about your own Native American past,” Dennis said. “I hope with creating On This Site, I can create a resource that is both academic and authentic to the tribe that tribal men and the youth can access. That way they won’t have to grow up not knowing their own history.
“I also want to enhance that through an awareness in non-indigenous communities,” he added. “Speaking with a lot of people as I went through school in Pennsylvania, they didn’t know that there are reservations or tribes left in New York because of the more popular history of the Trail of Tears and how all the Native American communities moved west … With that belief, you’re at risk of threatening your sovereignty.”
On This Site is still a work in progress. Dennis graduated from Penn State with his master’s degree this month, and now he’s back home in New York doing research for future projects. In the near future, he’s planning a photo shoot this fall when the colors of autumn take full form. After visiting the sites and taking photos, Dennis plans on editing his work, reviewing the pictures and contacting galleries to set up showings.
For putting together On This Site, Dennis was named one of 10 recipients of the 2016 $10,000 Dreamstarter grant, an initiative started by the nonprofit Running Strong for American Indian Youth. Dennis said their goal is to create a charity that works to create healthier, happier and more hopeful futures for young people in Native American communities.
Dennis is glad to be a part of the organization’s push.
“I’m also able to create a traveling exhibition, which can go to different schools, different libraries and galleries throughout that area,” he added. “Shinnecock is a relatively small location on Long Island, but there are a lot of connections and histories between the 13 tribes that once existed. I want to create an awareness of the intermarriages that took place and the histories that connect us to different tribes.”
By Jason Dorow