The Caribbean Photographer Who Chased His Dreams to Frigid Alaska

The Caribbean Photographer Who Chased His Dreams to Frigid Alaska

Why you should care

Because sometimes it’s OK to talk to strangers.

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Jovell Rennie
Anchorage, Alaska

I can’t complain. There is this guest judge in town for the Rarefied Light competition with the Alaska Photographic Center. My friends and I are going through this portfolio review workshop. I brought a mixed plate: five sets of four, ranging from lifestyle, landscape, travel/tourism, street and nude work. The judge said I should pursue street, but truth be told, some of the others and I are having a hard time taking him seriously. I love street work. But I don’t know that it always pays the bills.

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Jovell Rennie takes a walk by Ship Creek in Anchorage.

Source Nick Fouriezos/OZY

If you’re not from Alaska, you know me for my landscapes. I had my first lookbook published with the Hundreds, an online clothing company. In the past, I’ve done some stuff with Mashable and Budweiser. I’ve shot in New York and Costa Rica, and I shot Cuba for Alaska Airlines. I like to go take photos in Hatchet Pass, for the mountains. Or in Fairbanks, for the northern lights and the vastness of it — it’s open; sometimes with no people for 100-plus miles. Externally, people just know me for “pretty pictures.” I want to go to Adak Island and see the caribou, or photograph the Native Alaskans down the Aleutian Chain.

Anchorage is a small town, and I shoot a lot of nude work, so my name gets associated with that. A few years back, I had some friends who were struggling with body-image issues. There was this guy in town doing nude work, the type you would see in Playboy or Maxim. There was a lot of post-processing, and the women I knew wondered why they couldn’t be like these models. One day, I told my friend Amy, “Hey, let me take your photo. I want to show you that you are not competing with these people — that you’re special in your own regard.” I was scared out of my mind. I was conscious that there are a lot of creeps out there. But I shot her, she showed some girlfriends, and it took off: I charge $200 per person for around 25 photos, and I’ve shot between 300 and 400 people since.

I’m emboldened by the camera. There are a lot of things that the Black guy in me wouldn’t do but that the photographer in me would.

My uncle came to Alaska in the ’80s, before I was born, to check out the oil industry because it was starting to boom. He had done work in oil in Trinidad, same as my dad. I was supposed to be born in Alaska but popped out early in Trinidad. I was raised here, although I did go back to Trinidad at 6 years old for a few months. I remember vividly this one kid who would always play outside naked — it really upset me. I remember getting into an argument with him. And he looked at me, the most reasonable 6-year-old I ever met, and said: “What are we doing?” Playing, I said. “Where are we playing?” In the dirt. “Why would I go play in the dirt in my clothes and have my mom yell at me for getting them all dirty?”

That culture is what I grew up in. The way I learned to cook, or live in a house, or conduct myself, it’s all based in the islands. If you’re not from America, it doesn’t matter where your family came from — there is a certain way of doing things among immigrants. There’s a thing where we don’t use dishwashers, just wash our dishes by hand and use the washer as a drying rack: We don’t trust it. A lot of people who migrate to America don’t come here with the intention of working for someone. My dad has had a gift shop for 12 years. Before that, he worked for others and hated it.

I know for damn sure that mindset has popped up in my work. This is silly, but when I first started using Instagram, I told myself that I wanted to become the most well-known Instagrammer in Alaska. And there was a time when I was — at one point I had 77,200, the highest in the state. It was cool. I’m emboldened by the camera. There are a lot of things that the Black guy in me wouldn’t do but that the photographer in me would. The very first time I saw a black bear, I walked back to my car, grabbed the camera and chased the bear back into the woods. I’ll get much closer to moose than most. I’ll go up to the craziest looking dude on the street. My urge and want for that image is greater than that internal struggle to just mind your own business and live in your own world.

Matanuska Glacier, AK. 2016.

A post shared by Jovell (@jovell) on

I’m happy to see my work reaching an audience, but my time in Alaska is nearing an end. I told myself when I was younger that I would stay here until I was 25 — that, at the end, I would think about whether I was successful and then, regardless of how I felt, I would move on to the next phase. I always wonder if I really am successful or if I just have a community of people who have known me since I was a kid. I can’t know until I remove myself. Because once you leave your community, and you don’t know people in your new space, the only thing that sets you apart is your work and dedication.

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