Underneath It All

Misty Keasler talks about her young photography career and the intense images she captures, including this month's photos of the present-day Branch Davidian compound.

April 2003By Comments

Photographer Misty Keasler wants you to know about the people she’s met. She wants you to feel the struggle of the young heroin junkies in Plano. She wants you to see the reflection of a twenty-year-old dying from cancer in Lewisville. She wants you to see the light in the eyes of the impoverished orphans in Romania. She wants to make you think.

She turns 25 this month, but Keasler has documented more harrowing images than most people see in a lifetime. A Houston native and a Richardson resident, Keasler recently traveled to Waco to photograph the site of the Branch Davidian compound in collaboration with senior editor Michael Hall’s article, “The Ghosts of Mount Carmel,” which reflects on the tenth anniversary of the infamous siege. It’s Keasler’s ability to personify what’s “underneath the surface” of life that makes her just as intriguing a subject.

texasmonthly.com: You were already taking pictures in Waco before you came on board with Texas Monthly to shoot photographs to accompany this month’s article on the Branch Davidians in Waco. What interested you in the subject?

Misty Keasler: I spent a few days in Waco at the very end of the summer, and when I got back to work I sent my photographs to [art director] Scott [Dadich]. It was the first time I’d been there, but my brother lives in Waco and he talked about going to the compound site and about the characters he met there. He met a woman at the gate who said, “I haven’t sinned in two years.” Of course that was spiritual pride right there, he said, but he didn’t say anything to her.

I was always kind of curious about the Branch Davidians, so I went out there to see what was going on. I just said, “I’m a photographer and I’m not working for anybody right now, but could I hang out and take some photographs of you guys?” They get so many visitors that they get that all the time. I think that’s one of the reasons they’re out there.

Because I was shooting before Texas Monthly commissioned the job, a lot of the pictures already had a similar feel carried throughout, so Scott would just say, “For sure we’re going to need such and such.” Everything else I just photographed on my own. On the last trip I showed Mike [Hall] everything and asked him, “Is there anything I’m missing? Is there anything else you’d like to see.”

texasmonthly.com: When did you pick up your first camera?

MK: I got a Polaroid when I turned eight years old. I wanted a real camera, but my parents thought that it was a passing phase so they wouldn’t get me one. Later, I took some pictures for fun for the high school yearbook. I always took pictures and bought photo books, but I never would have envisioned that I could have done this for a living.

I sort of saw photography as on the same level as painting—I dug it, but I would never be able to do something that would have an impact. I eventually took a photo class because I thought it would be cool to know what to do in a darkroom, but now it’s not even about the darkroom at all.

texasmonthly.com: So when did photography become more than a hobby for you?

MK: I got a bachelor of arts with honors in photography from Columbia College in Chicago in 2001. But, I actually went to three schools, and I was originally a theater major. I went to DePaul University for two years, and I was in their theater program. They only graduate about 40 percent of their freshmen, though, so they told me I’d be better off pumping gas. It was just after I got cut from theater school that I took a photography class. I did two documentary projects: The first one—a series on my friend Wendy’s grueling eight months of chemotherapy—ended up being an exhibit. It was only my first semester doing photography so I thought, “Screw the theater stuff.” The second documentary I did was on young Plano heroin junkies, and it was on the cover of D Magazine. And then MSNBC picked it up and did a one-hour feature on me, which was kind of weird. So then I thought, “There’s something to this photography.”

texasmonthly.com: How did you get involved with photographing the heroin junkies in Plano? How did you get access to such intense moments?

MK: It was a winding road. My high school speech teacher had a son who was a junkie. He was on the debate team with me. He lost an incredible amount of weight his senior year; she said that he had lupus. Everyone thought that he was dying, but it was because he was on heroin. She quit teaching the year I graduated, and they moved away.

I was going to school in Chicago when the news broke about Plano and its heroin problem. It was really weird that it was on the news, because who in the world has heard of Plano? My speech teacher had moved back and she started an organization similar to MADD but for mothers against heroin. I knew about her son, Jason, and all that had happened, and I said to her, “Wouldn’t it be fascinating to follow around a junkie and show what it’s like and what they struggle with?” She said that would be great and it would be a good tool to educate people. We talked about how to go about it—she was in with the police— and she said, “I’ll send you with an undercover cop to a party.” I said, “No way.”

I had been hanging out with her son a lot; he was back and sober. Then she gave me a call and said, “Get to the emergency room now, I’ve got a junkie for you.” I thought, “Oh, my gosh, his parents are never going to let me photograph him.” I didn’t know what to expect. So I just walked straight into the emergency room like I knew what I was doing and walked around. I saw Jason’s mom sitting there, and she was rocking back and forth, rocking herself. And I thought, “That’s so weird. She’s in there with this body on a gurney and there’s no parents. What in the world?” And it was Jason.

He and I had been hanging out until two or three in the morning the night before, and he had been on heroin the whole time. I didn’t even know what people on heroin looked like. He would nod off like junkies do, and I would say, “Man, you need to get more sleep, you’re working so hard.” I was as stupid as you can get about it. I walked into the emergency room, and she said, “Start taking photographs.” When I realized it was him, I started shaking and said, “What if he doesn’t want these pictures?” She said, “It doesn’t matter, you’re doing what I want.” So I started taking pictures.

Then I got in touch with the screenwriter of the MTV documentary Wasted, who had come to Plano to do some research and hang out with junkies and see what it was like, and he got me in touch with a couple of the guys he followed around. I had photographed the OD, but I had never seen someone shooting up. These guys called themselves junkies because, they said, “Yeah, that’s what we are.” I was getting calls from them at three in the morning, and I’d drive out to photograph. I did that for six months, and I got to the point where I thought, “I can’t be around any junkies for a week.”

texasmonthly.com: Did you get emotionally involved? Did you ever feel that you should help them with their addiction?

MK: I would talk a lot with Jason’s mom, and I said to her, “These guys want to quit, but they don’t have the tools or the money to get a bed in a rehab clinic.” So I would say to them, “You know, if you guys want to rehab, you let me know and I’ll find ways to get you a bed.” And then we got two beds ready at a clinic and the guys never showed up.

I don’t stay objective when I’m taking pictures—that’s just impossible for me. So I got to be friends with them when I was hanging out with them. I had to pull back emotionally because I was watching people kill themselves with a needle. The camera protects you from what’s going on. It’s like being in an observation booth. You’re focused on lighting and metering and getting the shot. But there were a couple of times when I didn’t have my camera in front of me and I thought, “I’ll never do this again. I can’t be in this room when this stuff is happening.”

texasmonthly.com: You’ve traveled to Russia, Romania, and India to photograph orphanages. How did these opportunities arise and what was your experience there?

MK: I applied for a Fulbright grant but didn’t get it. The project that I proposed was to document orphanages. There’s an organization in Dallas, Buckner Orphan Care International, that works with orphanages, and I went to one of the presidents, and said, “I want to go and photograph the orphanages, would you be okay with that?” They had me go on a trip with them to get to know me, and they liked the pictures that I brought back. We’ve been building a relationship for two and a half or three years, and that’s my main connection when I go overseas and go talk to the orphanages.

The first trip—to Russia in November of 2000—changed my life. In Romania I spent the first two months volunteering in an orphanage, where they assigned me to one room. I cared for the babies in that room all day. I had one of those slings where you can wear the baby on your chest, and I always had my camera too. One hundred percent of the time I had a baby, and 50 percent of the time I had my camera. I would take pictures while there was a baby in the sling and then I’d put the camera down and trade babies and play with a new baby and put him in the sling and walk around and take some more pictures. It was really great because I couldn’t be there and not get involved. It just touches me so much.

When I went to India this past summer I was hoping to get involved with the Sisters of Charity, but it wasn’t a safe time to be there. If it were up to me, I would have stayed, but all of my family members were begging me to leave, so I said, “Okay, okay.” Then I went to Thailand for three weeks because I didn’t want to go home right away.

texasmonthly.com: In the description of your Plano heroin project on your Web site (keasler.com/misty/), you wrote that “the job of a documentary photographer is not to fix the world; it is to show what lies underneath the surface.” Does that translate to your other work as well?

MK: My view on it has sort of changed. When I wrote that I was photographing the subculture, where nothing is as it seems with these people when you meet them for the first time. I was trying to get in deep to what was really going on in their life. It’s a little different with the orphanage pictures because everything is just about documenting things that people don’t think about for the most part. The focus is just to make people think, “Wow. Orphanages. I don’t ever think about that.” One of the main reasons I take pictures is because I’m really curious and interested in what the world is like and how it translates into film.

I don’t know that my work in Waco was “under the surface” because those people will tell you anything when you’re talking with them. And the stuff that they didn’t tell me, I’m sure that they wouldn’t tell me anyway, even if I was around them and taking their pictures for years. Now I’m at the point where I believe that a documentary photographer’s job is just to document.

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