Photographer Shaniqwa Jarvis Sleeps to Dream

Clouds in the sky during a sunset
Shaniqwa Jarvis, ‘A moment with Maggie,’ 2003.

Shaniqwa Jarvis has spent the past two decades traveling across the globe with her camera, shooting everything from Nike and Supreme campaigns to subjects such as Serena Williams and former U.S. President Barack Obama. Throughout those years, she’s kept an eye out for moments that could capture something that’s been on her mind since she was just out of elementary school. The New York-born photographer has long been fascinated with dreams—to the point where she’s even learned how to control hers—and what they mean.

The dreamlike quality of the photos that encompass “Sleep to Dream,” her exhibition on view at the Tribeca gallery SN37 through October 16, comes through on a screen, but nowhere near as much as it does on the gallery’s walls; in a first for Jarvis, she had them painted black. “I feel like when you go into a meditative space or a dream space, you always go to black first, before you go to the light,” she says from her home in Los Angeles. “And I felt like creating that space for the viewer to walk into and then seeing these lit photographs would make the viewer feel like they were inside of my head.”

This exhibition features photographs dating all the way back to 1999. Have you always known they’d be a series, or was it only looking back that you realized their cohesion?

Over the years, it’s always been the same in that I’m working on commercial work or other projects and then I stop and take a breath and am like, Oh, wait, I’ve been photographing all doors. I’ve been photographing all hands. What am I trying to say? When I sat down and looked at all my work for this show, there was an alarming sentiment that kept ringing over and over. It made me think that I should look deeper, look harder at what I’ve been trying to say over the years, so I dug through all my negatives. It took me a very long time to come to these images.

So, what were you trying to say?

I came to this place where I was like, Wait, you’re always in a dream state. You’re always trying to figure out things through memory and dreams—to figure out things like, What’s in your memory and within your dreams that inspires the other work you do? I think there’s something about the things that aren't here, which I’m always trying to capture. This isn’t a full statement show where there’s a period at the end. For me, it’s still an exploration.

Costa Rica, Venice, Mexico City, Puerto Rico, Jersey City, Iceland… the list of where you took these goes on. Were those travels for work or pleasure?

Earlier on it was more about exploration and travel, but I always try and take time to create when I’m working on commercial projects. Even when I’m on set, I’m looking at something like, Oh, that's interesting—what is it saying?

Shaniqwa Jarvis, Sleep to Dream, 2020.

Photo by Shaniqwa Jarvis

Which of the photos really takes you back to the moment it captures?

Sleep to Dream (2020, pictured above), which I photographed on a road trip in Iceland. When I think about snow or I think about travel, I think that image is always there.

Do you sleep to dream?

Yeah, I definitely feel like I’ve been super obsessed with dreams for a very long time. It started in junior high, when I chose to write about dreams in my English class. My teachers and my mom were both like, “Okay, this is a pretty heavy and weird subject at age 11.” And I was just like, “No, I think I can control my dreams. I think I can work out something I didn’t finish in the day.” I remember going to the library and putting a lot of time into it because I was so interested.

Shaniqwa Jarvis, Double D, 2022.

Photo by Shaniqwa Jarvis

Shaniqwa Jarvis, Do you remember if I was here, 1999.

Photo by Shaniqwa Jarvis

Were you actually successful in controlling your dreams?

Yeah, I still can. It comes from how we’d always do a meditation and yoga at the African dance classes I went to with my mom. I feel like there’s something about learning to meditate at a young age that then helped me figure out how I can actually go into a dream state.

Can you share any of your recent ones?

They’ve all just been work anxiety, which lets me know that I need to take a little bit of a break. When I dream about work, it means that I’ve gone too far and I need to chill.

Shaniqwa Jarvis, The cleanest I’ve ever been, 2005.

Photo by Shaniqwa Jarvis

What’s the story behind The cleanest I’ve ever been (pictured above)?

It’s from a work trip that I did with the American Friends Association when the U.S. pulled all of their old guns and missiles out of Vieques. I wasn’t a part of the group, so I was left alone to roam and photograph things as I saw fit. I just remember standing in the shower and being like, Wait, have I been here before? There kept being these weird flashes of things looking familiar, and of course, it was in an old church dormitory, so nothing about it had to do with me being there before. I was standing in the shower and knew I wanted to capture it, so I did it over the course of a few days in black and white and then in color. It was one of the first times I photographed the same thing over and over during the course of a few days to wait for the correct lighting to match what I saw in my head.

At first, I thought that Emotional Maturity (2022, pictured below) was a flash photo of an asphalt road.

I’m printing it on fabric and hanging it at the center of the gallery because I really want people to feel the movement of the image. That’s another one I waited for the right moment to capture. It was during a storm in Barbados and there was water crashing up against the side of a building that I was standing next to at night. I just waited and waited and waited for the tide to come in.

Shaniqwa Jarvis, Emotional Maturity, 2022.

Photo by Shaniqwa Jarvis
Photo by Shaniqwa Jarvis

I also first thought that A moment with Maggie (2003, pictured below) was taken from an airplane window, but like many of your photographs, it’s taken from below.

That one was taken on an exploratory trip to Zihuatanejo with my friend, Maggie. We were shocked at how beautiful the sky was, and I spent a lot of time shooting upward on the beach. I was truly mesmerized by, and trying to capture, the sight, sound, and smell.

Shaniqwa Jarvis, A moment with Maggie, 2003.

Photo by Shaniqwa Jarvis

Shaniqwa Jarvis, And then the fog rolled in, 2020.

Photo by Shaniqwa Jarvis

Another one I wanted to ask you about, And the fog rolled in (2020, pictured above), was also taken on a beach.

The title is literally what happened. We were on the beach for a good friend's birthday and I told the group I was going to take a walk and snap some pictures. The minute I stood up, a pretty intense fog started to roll in. My friends wanted me to come back, but I didn’t sense any urgency. I saw this kid staring into the fog and it was one of those where it was like, “Okay, take it now—take it now.”