Since her childhood in Louisiana, Debbie Fleming Caffery has been moved by the struggles and injustices facing her African American neighbors who toiled in sugar cane fields and mills. Using the traditionalist’s tools of medium-format cameras, black and white film and silver gelatin prints, Caffery has tenaciously and intimately documented the daily life and the passing culture of the bayou communities for the past thirty-five years.
Web site: www.debbieflemingcaffery.com
Project: Cane, Cotton and Faith, A Visual History of Transition.
All images in this article © Debbie Fleming Caffery.
ASMP: How long have you been in business?
DFC: I have been taking photographs since 1972.
ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?
DFC: At least 5 years.
ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?
DFC: Documentary, fine art photography, portraiture, landscapes.
ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.
DFC: Hasselblad 645 camera and a 2¼ Hasselblad with Kodak Tri-X film, Manfrotto tripod. For printing: 20 by 24 silver gelatin prints. Ilford paper with sprint and Kodak chemicals. Enlarger, Zone 6, cold light head. For scanning negatives for archival purposes and book and magazine reproduction: Nikon 900 super cool scanner.
ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?
DFC: Camera, tripod and enlarger.
ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?
DFC: I tend to never end a project.
ASMP: You began your project in the 1970s. What propelled you to document African American workers in the Louisiana cane fields and mills?
DFC: I spent many years growing up across the bayou from a sugar mill. During harvesting my brothers and friends and I would watch the sugar being loaded onto a barge in the bayou. I always worried about the men standing on the barges falling into the bayou. Being small, the bayou was a menacing dark body of water full of snakes’ nests along the banks. The smells from the mill were so intense — the smell being part of a growing up memory. My grandfather would take me to the fields and mills when I was a child. We would eventually tend his garden and his chicken coops, after we drove through fields of burning cane and people working extremely hard. We knew people that only worked in the sugar industry during harvesting that had hard times surviving the rest of the year. Growing up I knew of the struggles of the African American community, particularly intensified after harvesting. I witnessed so much heartache and poverty that, as soon as I took a photography class, I began to document the workers during harvesting. The deepest root of my life’s work began very young through watching and hearing unbelievable stories of injustices, struggles and survival among the African American community.
ASMP: How did you make contact with, and then gain the confidence of your subjects?
DFC: I walked into a field of workers one day, introduced myself and told them of my interest in their work and that I was a photography student. I asked their permission to photograph them working and I brought them photographs back. I think by asking permission and explaining what I was doing and giving back is how I gained confidence.
ASMP: How and to what degree have you maintained contact with your subjects thru the years?
DFC: I always return to visit and I call and write letters.
ASMP: Over the past 35 years, what changes have been most noticeable in your subjects and their surroundings?
DFC: Many of my subjects have retired or died. Modernization of farming equipment has lessened the need of field labor. Migrant workers have taken over the few jobs left in the fields, with the exception of tractor drivers. Subdivisions have taken over a lot of farmland. Many sugar mills have shut down.
ASMP: Has your photography had any influence in the way your subjects are perceived or treated by others (the subjects’ employers, for example)?
DFC: No, but because of government regulations mills are safer to work in.
ASMP: Please describe the response from your subjects when they see your images.
DFC: Most people were surprised when I gave them an 8x10 photograph … they could not believe the pictures were so big. They often invited me to take photos of their families. After spending so much time, particularly in the fields they began to tell me what I missed when I was not there… a particular sunrise, a bear, a fox. Through the images I gave them and the time I spent, they became very aware of how I was seeing and began to share what they would see.
ASMP: What helps you to maintain your enthusiasm for the project over so many years?
DFC: The people.
ASMP: Are there any specific influences, artistic or otherwise, that have been influential to your work on this project?
DFC: My greatest influences have been the strong Cajun and African American women I grew up around and my Grandfather. Both cultures, of sharing the importance of family histories. Growing up around truthful, vivid story tellers. The past only being yesterday, as the pain being as present as the pain from the past, in a racist south.
ASMP: Has the style of your image making or your working methods changed over the years? If so please describe this trajectory.
DFC: My working methods have not changed. My style goes back and forth between very straight portraiture to more mysterious images. With the circumstances of photographing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and Rita I drew from my early documentary roots.
ASMP: Have you incorporated any audio, multimedia or video documentation in your coverage or are you planning this for the future? If so what role do you see these elements playing in relation to your photographs?
DFC: With my project I plan to do audio, as I want the voice of the people and their stories to be known.
ASMP: How has this personal work affected the style or content of your commissioned photography?
DFC: When commissioned, I realize that if the client wants a color digital image this is not the job for me. If a client wants a photographer to get emotionally involved in the subject matter, and not just a hit and run job, I am the person.
ASMP: Please talk about your exhibitions and the books you have published. How did you initiate and grow this aspect of your career?
DFC: My first book was Carry Me Home, published by the Smithsonian Press. I was approached by Pete Daniels, a curator at the National Museum Of American History. Pete had purchased my images for the Museum and offered to do a book. Years later The Shadows was published by Twin Palms publishers, which is a monograph of my work in Louisiana, Portugal and Mexico. With my third book, I had spent 5 years documenting the life of Polly Joseph, a woman who had spent most of her life, since she was a teenager, working in the sugar cane fields. Fourteen years after she died Twin Palms published Polly, a book of this work. Having these three books has been one of the highlights of my career. Great example for young photographers to never give up on a project they truly believe in.
Like all young photographers today I toted my portfolio around to museums and photo reviews for years. From this hard work I began to get exhibitions. One of my first and most momentous sales was to John Szarkowski of the Museum of Modern Art. The most personally satisfying museum purchases have been of images of Polly. After waiting so long to have a book published on her, images were added to the collections of MOMA, the Whitney and the Met.
ASMP: Do you have any specific insights to give others for success in exhibiting and/or publishing documentary or fine art photographs?
DFC: I love to photograph. I appreciate all aspects of it, as painful as it is sometimes. I wish my work had a greater social impact, but I feel our country is dead on feeling anything beyond a small personal sphere. I think those doing documentary work have to understand that the heart, gut and integrity they put into the work is the prize, along with the relationships made. The courage to tell a story to the end is rare. Exhibitions and books are the results of hard work and also the greatest bonus!