Renée Dennison is an MFA Candidate in Photography at ASU, with an expected graduation date of May 2018. She is Diné and grew up on the Navajo Reservation in northeastern New Mexico. But as a young woman she left it, and her family, to move east, and pursue a career in finance. Several years later, she discovered photography. At the age of 48, she decided to leave her accounting job and returned home to New Mexico, where she began to photograph her grandmother who still lived a traditional lifestyle on the reservation. She only recently passed away at the age of 106. In her own words Renée says, “The moment I began this journey I immediately knew that this was what I was meant to do all my life.”
Following are her ruminations about crossing cultures, her artist statement and samples of her imagery.
Renée: For me, both the native and non-native experiences are enriching in many ways and on so many levels. Leaving the reservation at twenty-four years old gave me a sense of freedom because, growing up, I felt constrained living on the reservation and yearned to see the world beyond it. However, since returning home to my family in New Mexico, I understand that I took my own Diné culture for granted. These last two years reconnecting and photographing my grandmother helped me understand the significance of who I am as a Diné. On the other hand, my time away from home helped shape who I am, and I would not be doing the work I’m doing now had I not left the reservation.
The stories of my grandparents and parents who had to contend with assimilation, boarding schools, relocation, and other destructive policies of the U.S. government describe the repercussions on my family. While the lasting impacts of these policies have been told by non-native storytellers I would like to explore them and provide a native perspective to these policies. I am only beginning to understand the intricacies and significance of that impact on my family and the Diné people. Because of their experiences, education has always been instilled in me, from generation to generation, from my grandparents to my parents and to my brothers and sisters. For me, that meant leaving the reservation, my culture, and family for a period of time. Having pursued my education, I have found it be invaluable.
My grandmother was born on June 14, 1910 and she was 103 years old when I first began photographing her traditional way of life on the Navajo reservation. These images tell not only a story about my grandmother, they are a representation of my own journey in rediscovering my family, culture, and identity.
My grandmother’s life may look simple to an outsider however it is a difficult life, a hard life. Her struggle to maintain her independence and dignity facing many everyday challenges is a testament to, and a reminder of, the beauty, strength, resiliency, and courageousness of the human spirit. My grandmother passed away peacefully on December 26, 2016 having lived 106 years.