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.

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

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