An Interview with Colby Deal

Colby Deal is a photographer and multi-disciplinary artist from Houston, Texas.  His work documents life in the area he grew up in as well as other overlooked and underprivileged communities.  His ongoing body of work Beautiful, Still is a comprehensive documentation of the Third Ward neighborhood in Houston, and a record of what remains from parts of society that are gradually being divided and erased along sociopolitical lines.  Deal became a nominee member of Magnum Photos in 2020.  I spoke with him via Zoom in March 2021 about his work, process, and views on the current state of the photography industry and social issues.

Note: all images included in this article are from Deal’s ongoing project Beautiful, Still.

Andy Pham: I find your work very authentic and there is a clear connection to the people and places you photograph.  How did your personal style and approach come about?

Colby Deal: It kind of just came about from growing up, and searching for what was my niche.  But I’ve always been an artist.  I do everything: I paint, sculpt, do graphic design.  My father and my uncle were photographers.  Growing up and looking at photos of family gatherings, parties, weddings, portraits.  All of that is what’s fueled what I’m doing.  

AP: Was there a moment or turning point in your life that changed your perspective on photography, or that made you want to pursue it further as a career?

CD: The thing that changed my perspective was, I was stuck in this limbo of old life, new life, like a tug of war.  When I was lying down on this bed with this gun to the back of my head, I was thinking, I could be out taking a photograph right now. I don’t have to be here.  So I asked the earth, the universe, the energy that if I could just get out of here alive, then photography’s my life. This is it.

[Note:  Deal was a victim in an armed robbery when he was a student at the University of Houston.]

AP: The intentional imperfection in your work is hard to miss and one of the defining characteristics of your style.  Also, the way you see things, to me, is really natural and instinctive.  A lot of your pictures seem very instinctively made, instead of being perfectly composed, set up, and lit.

CD:  I’ve broken it down to the bones.  It’s the importance of the eyes, the way we see. When you wake up, open your eyes, that’s a photograph.  Your eyes are precious, what you see is precious.  That’s one of the reasons I shoot film.  I’ve always been attracted to that nostalgic look, the rawness and the roughness of it.  What you see is what you see, and what you snap is what you snap. I’m not really a big technical person.  I don’t like perfect pictures.  I’m not going to go back and put everything in Photoshop.   I’m tired of the sugar-coating, of people tucking shit away, telling lies.  And that’s what we get on the news and media every day. 

AP:  Another distinguishing aspect of your work is photographing seemingly mundane objects and scenes: shopping carts, piles of trash, empty lots.  But these things also carry with them a story and meaning that work into your narrative.

CD: When Hurricane Harvey happened in 2017,  you could drive down the streets and see entire houses on the sidewalks.  You’d see people’s photographs, tables, chairs, clothes.  And that holds a lot of weight.  And you have to preserve that.  Those are a lot of the underlying issues that arise in my work, trying to say: We’re not numbers.  We’re not objects.  These are people’s stories, people’s lives.  

AP: You also photograph a lot at night.

CD: I like the night.  The light falls differently on poles, trees, streets.  You just see so differently at night.  So I try to narrate that.  I feel like there is a story there, and I’m at peace.  It settles my soul.

It’s so blatant.  It’s tiring. I’m at the point where I don’t even get mad anymore.  It’s like, we know who you are. You’ve shown us who you are.

AP:  Your recent project and exhibition Red Gen deals with gentrification and redlining in underprivileged and under-resourced communities.  Could you talk a little more about some of the social issues you’re trying to address in your work?

CD: That project addresses the issues of gentrification and redlining, and I’m also getting into the issue of self-sustainability within communities.  I’ve been going down to Mexico and just capturing how people are surviving.  I also want to go up to Minneapolis and shoot around the George Floyd trial.  What I’ve been pondering and meditating on is, what if they say ‘Not guilty’?  What’s gonna happen? [This interview took place before April 2021 – ed.]

[Regarding police brutality and systemic racism and discrimination in America]:  It’s so blatant.  It’s tiring. I’m at the point where I don’t even get mad anymore.  It’s like, we know who you are. You’ve shown us who you are.

AP:   Your ongoing body of work Beautiful, Still is a documentation of the Third Ward in Houston, where you grew up, and includes a mixture of portraits, landscapes and images of everyday objects.  Does your mindset shift when you’re moving between photographing these different subjects?  And do you find any of them to be more rewarding to photograph than the others?

CD: The people are more rewarding, of course.  But the narrative and stories are best told when I do landscape stuff.  Because there aren’t any figures, all you can do is think about the people who lived there. Who came home there, who cooked dinner there, who walked that street.  I look at a project like a plate of food.  You don’t want just a plate of ribs.  You want some chicken, some potato salad, some greens, all of it.  I got tired of going into galleries and looking at portrait after portrait and thinking, I like this portrait, but where do they live?  Where do they roam?  That’s why I work the way I do.  I’ll give you a portrait, a street scene, a mundane object.  A plate of food.

When a kid wakes up to go to school and sees themselves on a building, twelve feet tall and shown in a positive way, it’s monumental.  Think about the psychological effect that has on people 

AP: You also do wheat pastings and use other forms of presenting your work.  How does this add to the overall message you’re trying to communicate?

CD: It goes back around to my love of art. I’ve always loved painting and how paintings are presented.  And I thought about why we don’t do this with photography.  You might see huge photographic prints, but it’s still just a piece of paper.  I wanted to present my photography like painting, print them huge, and bring in the idea of preservation of culture. I use household materials like crown molding, connecting the idea of family, love, home, tradition, elegance.  Combining the raw aspect of street art with how you present things inside of a gallery.  So it just grew from there.  

Also, it brought the people from the photographs into their own kind of gallery. When a kid wakes up to go to school and sees themselves on a building, twelve feet tall and shown in a positive way, it’s monumental.  Think about the psychological effect that has on people from an under-resourced community that is viewed as negative because of the media and society.  People see themselves and think, I’m not just a black man or woman in chains.  What I do with my work is try to tell them: You are beautiful. You are someone. You are enough.

AP: You were selected as a nominee member, along with four other BIPOC photographers, to Magnum Photos last year.  What’s that experience been like so far?

CD: It’s been a balancing act.  For me, imagining a perfect life, to be able to look after my family, my community, and also document world events and history, and to be able to be paid for it and to sustain my life.  So I’m happy about it. 

We’re going to create a new name, get rid of that type of shit.  That’s not how Magnum will be represented moving forward

AP: There have been some recent controversies surrounding Magnum regarding the content and context of certain imagery that could potentially be viewed as morally objectionable.  The question of whether the right to assign meaning or assert values to these images belongs to the photographer or the viewer.  Now that you’re a member of Magnum and have more of an inside perspective, what’s your take on this issue?

CD:   I don’t know too many details.  But I get that everything isn’t perfect.  Some people make mistakes, and I can’t speak for them.  But, the new nominees aren’t a part of that.  We’re going to create a new name, get rid of that type of shit.  That’s not how Magnum will be represented moving forward, with this new generation of photographers coming in.

Colby Deal’s website

All Rights Reserved: text © Andy Pham; images © Colby Deal