Chance Deville in conversation with Efrem Zelony-Mindell
Chance is a queer artist and poet born and raised in Southwest Louisiana. Their photographs and prose climb inside of trauma, queerness, and landscape where they search all of the nooks and crannies in between on their way out. Chance currently resides in Providence where they are completing their MFA in photography at Rhode Island School of Design.
Efrem Zelony-Mindell is a white non-binary curator, writer, and artist. Some of their curatorial endeavors include group shows: n e w f l e s h, Are You Loathsome, and This Is Not Here. They have written about art for FOAM, Unseen, DEAR DAVE, Musée Magazine, SPOT, and essays for artists’ monographs. Their first book n e w f l e s h, published by Gnomic Book and shortlisted for the Paris Photo Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Award 2020, is available now and is in the collections at MoMA, The MET, the Whitney Museum of American Art, TATE, Art Institute of Chicago, and 41 other libraries and archives around the world. Efrem’s second book, Primal Sight, will be released soon. They work, write, lecture, and live in New York.
Efrem Zelony-Mindell (EZM): Dear Chance, the sun’s setting now and past the curtains of the window I’m sitting in front of I see the wind and leaves blowing. I’m thinking of being outside and all the complicated conversations I’ve been having and loving with so many people over the last few days and weeks. I’m thinking about you and these amazing pictures you make about your mother, and yourself, and the land, and the things around you and the things lurking in your mind. I’m thinking about Louisiana, as much as one who’s never been, but always wanted to go can think about Louisiana. It lives in my mind from my favorite novel as a teenager and now in the photos you make. Your pictures aren’t easy to look at. They turn me inside out in every way I could ever possibly want to be exposed. They make me realize that reality lays somewhere outside my mind, maybe in the face of your mother or in these landscapes I’ll never see, where people have don’t wonderfully depraved things to each other. All of these photos are connected by place and site, and something like ghosts—lively spirits. I think it best to start where all good stories start. The beginning. I’d love to hear you introduce your mother, the pictures you make, and your story. That’s a big question I realize, by all means, start small and we’ll go from there.
Chance DeVille (CDV): Hello Efrem! It seems we both have a knack for thinking about Louisiana. I’m currently sitting on the side of the Woonasqatucket River in Providence listening to the current and thinking about home and how I ended up back in New England. Louisiana is a beautiful place that you should make sure to get to at least once in your life, but maybe as a Floridian it won’t seem much different to you. I want to sincerely say thank you for the kind words on my work, but most importantly I want to say thank you for asking me to introduce my mother. As many conversations as I’ve had about this work, I’ve never been asked that question and it genuinely brought me to tears. My mom’s personality can’t be contained by words but I’ll do my best to do so! My mom’s name is Tammy Young. She’s truly a firecracker and a force to be reckoned with. She loves to drink, dance, and chain smoke. She doesn’t like to have a schedule or be still or confined, she just likes to have fun. She’s as free of a spirit as you can get. But she’s also super protective and fights for her loved ones. She makes sure that her and her people are always protected to the best of her ability. She’s a warrior. The pictures I make are intrinsically linked to our complicated story, and the complications of being human, having thoughts, and consciousness. When I was in kindergarten and my brother in second grade, my mom married her 3rd husband, David Ellender. We moved to a small town in Louisiana called Moss Bluff, where he had a house on a lake. As the story usually goes, everything stared out fine and David gained our trust and our love as a family. Then, slowly but surely, the abuse started and got heavier and heavier as time went on. About two years later, David took a job in Massachusetts in a Boston suburb and relocated us. The true horror stories happened in New England since he removed the only safety net we had, which was being in Louisiana close to my grandparents. This is the reason I have such a curiosity about the New England landscape and what it holds, what trauma is present, and what memories remain—particularly the sex cruising sights I photograph. Fast forwarding a bit to when my mother and David’s relationship was starting to wrap up, this was also when I was starting 6th grade, the divorce was finally ending and David was eventually out of the picture and we miraculously survived. My Mom, however, never really got out of it. Among many other injuries, she has a metal plate in her head from one of the beatings. This plate and the severe trauma of what she endured left her with late-onset schizophrenia and severe PTSD. Unfortunately, to handle this she’s battling with alcoholism and addiction to try to keep these things at bay. This of course makes it worse but she’s doing the best she can. We all are. So, as heavy as that is, my work is a way for me to rebuild a relationship with my mom through the camera. It’s a way to document our ongoing struggle, traumas, and collective recollection and reclamation of our lives.
EZM: Hard to follow that up. Haha! Your candor and courtesy in this introduction doesn’t surprise me though. Such treatment that you’ve shown here is in your images as well, and in the words that you include with the work you make. You’re a good writer as much as you are a photographer. I’m curious if writing has always been a part of the work you make or is it a more recent development?
CDV: Thank you for that, I’ve only started recently considering myself as a writer. I can remember a time when I was younger when I thought I would grow up to be an author. I wrote several short stories as an outlet growing up. But somewhere along the way, I lost that bravery when it came to writing. I’ve always thought in fragmentation and slices of air, so I started writing them down and putting them with my photographic work and it came together organically. I do see the writing as separate from the photograph in that I don’t want to pair a piece of text with a specific image, though. I think it’s important for them to live and breathe as their own, but be able to exist simultaneously.
EZM: What a beautiful image you’ve created in my head. You make photography sound like writing, but with hiccups. Little gasps of air between stanzas of pictorial descriptions. I also understand wanting things to stand alone, but I wonder if separate isn’t necessarily the “right” word. I understand the sentiment, but to me the layering of art, any art, is so important to telling a story. We use different parts to embellish, which personally I think is a closer word to the sentiment of what you may mean. I don’t want to dwell on the semantics of separate versus embellish, but it is very interesting to me how you build up layers and leave room for viewers to connect dots. You’re navigating identity in relationship to your mother, and then you photograph landscapes and describe personal observations with these little written vignettes; it’s all inescapably connected to one another and creates a much bigger picture of a world rather than solely an image or a portrait. It feels more like a life lived rather than a moment, a moment, a moment. How does insecurity play into things? I imagine there’s a lot of space for uncertainty and a fairly large margin for error, both a challenge and a trigger to figure things out. But what’s at stake here?
CDV: Ah, insecurity. Speaking of semantics, what a word! I think insecurity wiggles its way into my life and practice where it can; but I try not to give it too much power or thought. I constantly remind myself that I’m figuring things out along the way, much like everyone else, and to trust my instincts whenever it comes to decision making and creating. When I’m making work on my own identity, I don’t feel that pressure as much to get everything “right”. There isn’t a correct or incorrect way to convey my own existence inside of my own body. I’d say the stakes get much higher whenever I show the world the work of my mom. Then I’m using my voice to convey the life of another, no matter her connection to me as an individual, that’s a big task. The conversation then starts to shift towards ethics, power dynamics, and the complications of relationships. It’s my responsibility to show her as a living, breathing individual who is complicated and evolving and not to objectify. The margin of error is larger here but that’s what’s so exciting to me about making the work. It’s a constant challenge for me to create in a way that shows her identity and individuality.
EZM: I’m so glad to hear that you don’t reject insecurity or uncertainty. Both of these feelings are so natural to making anything; they feel key to giving ourselves the time to play and make a mess while we’re making the work. The roller coaster is pivotal, there’s always time later for engineering, if you will. How do you define your relationship(s) through the lens of disorder?
CDV: Yes! Messiness and failure and experimentation are all necessary for the work. And I welcome all of it with open arms. It’s hard to say, I define my relationships through the lens of disorder since it’s all I know. So to me, it’s all orderly. I understand it isn’t this way for everyone but it’s all so normal to me. I try to be empathetic and understanding in all relationships, especially through the lens. I take my role and responsibility as a photographer seriously in understanding the power that I have with a camera. I believe my experiences have made me more sensitive to that.
EZM: That certainly makes a lot of sense. Trauma is something that we collect throughout a life lived, it isn’t singular, and it embodies a much bigger picture. Like your work, how you perceive isn’t simply individual, it comes from many corners all together which is one of the reasons why it’s so great to see all the different elements of your work. Sometimes they overlap, other times they come side by side. The layering is complex. It’s at times sexual, other times parental and specific, and even yet sometimes too it is also expansive and about the land and psychology. We’re all building new relationships based off of our lived experiences and you embody so much more than what I’m used to seeing in photographic stories like this. The psychic energy of the landscapes in your work in relation to gender, identity, and family is particularly interesting to me. I think the literal space in between our relationships is something we take so much for granted, but is something that holds a lot of power in molding who we are and how we think. I know you go for a lot of walks. I’m curious what you’re out there looking for sometimes, even if you don’t have your camera with you. What is it that’s out there?
CDV: I like to think of the body of work exactly like that – a body. It lives a life of its own in some sense. It’s complicated and layered and uncomfortable. Walking, exploring, looking, it all keeps me levelled. Especially right now during COVID. Everything is out there—it’s nature. It’s the land that’s held so many lives and watched so many pass along. Whether or not I have my camera with me, I’m just looking to have an experience, too have a connection with some piece of the place, even if it is somewhere that I’ve been to hundreds of times. Sometimes I’m looking to have an experience with someone, I’m looking for a stranger to have a conversation with and hopefully be able to photograph in the landscape. I appreciate the conversations I have with people who allow me to photograph them just as much as I appreciate the ones who’d prefer not to be. Experiences and connections, with both the people and the land, that’s what I’m looking for and that’s what is out there.
EZM: I wonder how you navigate the psychological landscape of your home in Louisiana, particularly the responsibility you have towards your mother? Thinking of the mind as a forest is rather thoughtful and compelling. But your advocacy is incredibly tender and thoughtful towards Tammy. Could you spell that out a bit?
CDV: The psychological landscape of home is a rather hilly one. There are a lot of ups and downs and windy roads. I try my best to understand the kind of mood my mom is in whenever I interact with her on a day to day basis whenever I’m home. She’s like everyone else and has her bad days, so I make sure that whenever she’s feeling down or irritable to ask what I can do to help and if there isn’t anything, in particular, I can do I just let her have her space that day. Other days she’s spontaneous and adventurous and explorative and that’s when we go for a drive, go for a walk, or simply just laugh at ridiculous things happening in the house, because there’s always a lot of that going on with the personalities that live there. I’m more alert and maybe tread carefully around her than I do other people because I realize that she’s more sensitive to the things happening around her. And I don’t mean sensitive in a negative way, just more reactive. This is especially true whenever I have my camera and am photographing her. It’s a constant back and forth of give and take between us emotionally and physically.
EZM: How does being gay come into all this?
CDV: Ha! That’s a tough one. It’s one of those things that has everything to do with it because it’s how I’ve navigated my entire life. That’s the thing about being a gay man. Especially being a gay man who grew up in the Deep South. I don’t think that it completely defines my identity or who I am as a person, but it completely changes how I’ve navigated life from others and how I’ve formed my relationships with people. It’s made me open and able to look at lives and situations in multiple ways. It’s built empathy. As far as the work goes, it has to do with my experience so it works its way in there. Going back to the cruising sites is a way to work through my trauma physically. It’s a sort of survivals guilt of making it out of the David situation “better off” than everyone else in my family, by forcing myself into a pleasurable but possibly dangerous situation. I don’t fully have the answer to that. The more I grow as a person the more I realize the impact everything has truly had on me, including my gayness. Or whatever you want to call it.
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