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Barely Legal: Meet Humza Deas, the 18-Year-Old Prodigy Photographer from Bushwick

At only 18, Humza Deas has already accomplished more than what people do in a lifetime.

Humza Deas

Humza Deas doesn’t want to be labeled. He especially doesn’t want to be called an 'Instagrammer', a label placed on him after the 18-year-old photographer gained a large following on Instagram by climbing bridges and buildings in New York City for the perfect shot.

“I prefer to be called an artist,” he says decidedly.

Humza, the artist, has accomplished a lot despite his barely legal status. His photography has been featured on the cover of New York Magazine, he's been named one of Time Out New York's twelve influencers shaping the city, and he designed his own socks. He's also unquestionably mature for his age; but then again, most New York City teens are. Born in Crown Heights to a Trinidadian mother and a Puerto Rican father, Humza moved around Brooklyn and Queens during childhood before settling in Bushwick with his aunt about four years ago. A middle child, his mother is a painter and his older brother is a musician. “I guess we all descend from a creative background,” he says.

Humza Deas

Prior to garnering fame through his photography, Humza was an avid skateboarder, beginning from age of ten after watching his older brother. “I looked up to my older brother with whatever he did and he picked up skateboarding. I wanted to be like him," he says. When he got better than his brother, his brother stopped skating. Humza has suffered injuries – a broken wrist and nearly breaking a leg – but his passion for skateboarding is still going strong. After the interview, he tells me he’s heading to the Lower East Side Skate Park with friends.

Humza Deas

His undeniable talent for photography followed at 17, when Humza, unable to skateboard in the winter snow, started taking pictures with a broken iPhone. Inspired by a YouTube video of two men scaling the Shanghai Tower, the next night he took his camera and started photographing “illegal things.” “[When I saw that video], a light bulb went off. I thought, ‘no one is doing this in New York City,’ ” he says.

Humza has already accomplished what many photographers only dream of - with no professional training. “I always isolated myself from everything. With photography, I would go out and shoot a photo, and if it was blurry, I [would take it again]. It’s all trial and error.”

Humza Deas

A couple years after first picking up a camera, Humza amassed a staggering collection of jaw-dropping photos. From a photo of an abandoned church in Chicago to a stunning night shot of the Manhattan bridge, his 174,000 Instagram followers and counting have come to expect only the best still imagery from this young photo prodigy. If you’re familiar with his work, then you probably associate him with the “UrbExer” movement. Short for Urban Explorers, the NY-based group “are extreme explorers who infiltrate subways and skyscrapers for the adventure – and the ultimate photograph.” Recently, the group was profiled in a New York Times video with Victor Thomas or “Vic Invades” at its center.

Back when the idea of urban exploring was still fresh, Humza got his first taste of fame. But it’s something he's all to eager to put behind him. In August of 2014, he was accused of climbing the Brooklyn Bridge and replacing the American flag with a white flag. The possibility of it being him wasn’t all that hard to believe: “I was a kid in NYC known for scaling tall buildings and bridges for the perfect photo.” While it wasn’t Humza who replaced the flag, that didn’t stop people from pointing the finger in his direction. Having just gone to bed after a night of shooting, he awoke to a mass of texts and Instagram comments.

“My following was going up, but I was also getting a lot of hate and unwanted attention, and the paranoia of the NYPD coming and knocking on my door.” A friend of Humza's knew a reporter at a local news station, so he went on to make a statement and clear his name. But the interview backfired. “They were saying I exposed a subculture (of Urban Explorers). I was getting death threats.”

Humza Deas

In regards to urban exploring, Humza feels no animosity, but would rather distance himself from the movement all together. “We do the same thing, but for different reasons. They go to the top [of a building] to see the old architecture or historic landmark, and I’m just there for the photo.” Yet he knows he made urban exploring a trend. “I found a way to capture New York City, which is the most cliché city to photograph in a new perspective.” But with its current popularity and media attention, he tells me, frustrated, that he is “back where I started.”

At the moment, Humza prefers photographing solo. After recounting a harrowing tale about [almost] getting run down by a train in the subway tunnels, he's understandably cautious about who he shoots with. While he’s eager to meet with photographers in other cities, his attitude towards his hometown is a little “been there, done that.”

Humza Deas

You could say Humza Deas is feeling a bit misunderstood, which, coincidentally, is the title of his two-part video series on Vimeo. Filming started a little over a year ago at his first gallery show in Brooklyn in collaboration with Entree Lifestyle and has since documented the young photographer’s journey from NYC to Vancouver, Dubai and beyond. While in Vancouver, he got a tattoo (his first) that has “misunderstood” scrawled on his arm. He tells me that he wants to get a tattoo in every city he visits, and already has his next tattoo planned.

Gazing towards the sights and sounds outside Variety in Bushwick, our conversation turns back to Instagram. I mention the popular hashtag he started with a friend, #CreateYourHype, which now has more than 163,000 tags. Yet, still, Humza doesn’t want to be called an Instagrammer or limit himself as an artist. “If I can see my end game, I will immediately change my route,” he tells me.

Humza Deas

He used to take negative comments on his account personally by either responding immediately or deleting the comment. Not anymore. “If my art offends you, good.” He's learned a lot over the past year, including who exactly he's doing all this for. “I used to want to please every person, including other photographers. Now, I’m mostly doing this for me and for brands.” His target audience goes as follows: himself, brands and his peers. “I enjoy having a large audience, but I’m not doing this for the dollars. I’m mostly in it for the experience, honestly. I long to be in awe.”

I ask Humza why he thinks people respond so strongly to his work, and he tells me this: “No one in their right mind is willing to go to that length for a photo.” This isn’t an exaggeration. What he’s done, along with others who call themselves urban explorers, is risk arrest, injury or worse for the perfect photo.

Humza Deas

When asked about his long term goals, Humza gives an answer only a young, ambitious kid would: “I want to photograph planet Earth from the moon.” All jokes aside, his more realistic goal includes photographing behind enemy lines. He then starts to discuss the ongoing strife in Mumbai and how he almost went there to photograph. He backed out when he realized the risk just wasn’t worth it at this point in his life.

For now, he's just focused on the present. This week he is in San Diego to shoot with Sony in hot air balloon. Then he’s back in NY, then LA, then maybe London or Iceland. He’s also been approached to be the subject of a documentary. Clearly, there’s no stopping Humza Deas. This young kid from Brooklyn is just getting started.

Follow Humza Deas @humzadeas

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