“I want to provide positive representations of people of colour and people from under-resourced areas,” says Deal, who dedicates his practice to uplifting cultural representations of his community
Colby Deal is a firm believer in the potential of photography to be a transformative medium. “Especially now with Covid and how it is separating people, imagery is so important” he says, over video call from outside his home in Houston’s Third Ward, where he has been photographing with the intention to uplift cultural representations of the predominantly Black neighbourhood. “People of colour and people from under-resourced communities are always shown negative images about themselves,” says Deal, whose practice involves pasting his images onto abandoned buildings and derelict shopfronts. “Imagine being a kid, waking up, getting on the school bus, and seeing yourself displayed monumentally in a positive manner. That can have a strong psychological effect on the way you think about yourself and others. Like seriously, just a glance at an image can change your thought patterns — it can change your whole life.”
Adopting a participatory approach, Deal’s process involves a lot of talking and walking. On a typical day, he will drag his large format camera on a wagon, stopping at people’s doorsteps and porches for a drink, smoke, and conversation, about their lives and the condition of their community. “I don’t want to call it a story because I sound like a fucking news reporter,” he laughs, “but what I’ll do is walk around, find things I like, and shoot around it”. The culmination of these excursions is Beautiful, Still, an ongoing collection of over 1,000 black-and-white negatives of street photographs and portraits.
Some of the images memorialise candid, intimate, and joyful moments between families and friends, while others are staged, often drawn from Deal’s own memories. The image of two men playing chess [below], for example, is based on the close relationship between his father and uncle, who would regularly play chess in the front garden. “That picture is like a poised memory… about how seeing this as a child affected my upbringing,” he explains. “But it also speaks about the struggles of living in America, raising a family, having to work, and having to think critically as you move ahead, like chess.
The ability to layer these historical, personal, and social contexts in a single image can be cited back to Deal’s childhood and evolution as an artist. Deal was initially self-taught, later enrolling in the Photography BFA at The University of Houston, mostly for “the network,” he says, and to “learn how to better articulate what I was doing”. The documentary photographer, who last month became a Magnum nominee, is also a sculptor, carpenter, graphic designer, and painter. “As a child, everything I found joy in was about art,” says Deal, who was drawing from the age of three, and later developed an obsession with breaking down objects and piecing them back together. “That aspect has played a huge part in what I do today, which is looking at an idea, concept, or message that I want to get across, then starting from the root, and working from there.”
“I’m showing you the gritty side, because I’m giving you from top to bottom. All of that makes this community beautiful, that’s the point.”
Whether they are tender portraits of elderly residents, street scenes of children playing, or the “not-so-pretty stuff in between”, Deal is committed to capturing a true representation of his community. Among over 1,000 images, there is a “grittier” side, which remains unshown. “It’ll be ready when it’s ready, but I’m not rushing it,” says Deal. “I’m showing you the gritty side, because I’m giving you from top to bottom. All of that makes this community beautiful, that’s the point.”
“Anywhere you go, negative, bad shit happens,” Deal continues, referring to the experience of being shot in his own neighbourhood. “That doesn’t stop me from loving this place. It’s beautiful. There are beautiful people here, artists, entrepreneurs, writers, mothers, fathers, families. The media tends to take one little incident and snowball it, and I’m combating that.”
What interests Deal is people, and the resilience of the communities he photographs, which now extends beyond Houston, to Colorado and Los Angeles, where he is working on new bodies of work. Still, Deal emphasises the importance of building connections before making images. “I don’t want to be that guy just shoving my camera in your face when I don’t even fucking know you,” he says. “Usually when projects are made about a certain place, they send someone who is the total opposite of the people who live there, which creates an uncomfortable barrier that has to be broken. Beautiful, Still is coming from me, someone who is from that place. That has an everlasting effect, I’ve seen it happen, and I’m positive about that.”
Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.