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Debbie Fleming Caffery

Contemporary Louisiana photographer Debbie Fleming Caffery documents the people others often overlook: sugarcane workers, Mexican prostitutes, and the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Debbie Fleming Caffery

Courtesy of Arthur Roger Gallery

Harry's Hands. Caffery, Debbie Fleming (photographer)

Contemporary Louisiana photographer Debbie Fleming Caffery documents the people others often overlook: sugarcane workers, Mexican prostitutes, and the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Her black-and-white photos give her subjects a mysterious, meditative quality, and often emphasize movement or pattern. The author of four photography books—Carry Me Home, The Shadows, Polly, and The Spirit and The Flesh—Caffery won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2005 and received the Governor of Louisiana’s Art Award in 1989. She was also the first a winner of the Lou Stoumen Award in documentary photography and was the recipient of the 2011 Michael P. Smith Award for Documentary Photography from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.

Born March 6, 1948, in New Iberia, Caffery grew up in southwestern Louisiana. After graduating from the San Francisco Art Institute with a bachelor’s degree in fine art, she returned to Louisiana to photograph the world she knew best. For her 1990 book, Carry Me Home, Caffery photographed the world of sugarcane workers in St. Mary Parish. Dominated by the shadowy tones of early morning light, her dark, evocative images express her emotional connection to the land and the people.

Carry Me Home also features photographs of Caffery’s three children growing up in rural Louisiana, as well as images of Polly Joseph, an elderly African American woman who lived near Caffery’s home in Franklin. Joseph, who inhabited an abandoned cabin without electricity or gas, became friends with Caffery, as well as the subject of numerous photographs. A monograph of Caffery’s dark and elegant photographs, titled Polly, was published in 2004.

Caffery has also explored rural Portugal and continues to make images in agricultural communities in Louisiana. “My search in photography has been a process of refining my response to the mystery of life,” Caffery has said. Her images are themselves mysterious, “people and landscapes,” as Caffery described them, “surrounded by an atmosphere of fog, smoke, and fire…long exposures with blurred or out-of-focus elements that help explain the unexplainable.”

During the mid-1990s, Caffery photographed a small village in northeastern Mexico for her study The Spirit & The Flesh. Published in 2009, the photographs capture the town’s religious rituals and everyday life. Caffery juxtaposes images of the town’s church with photos of a local cantina that sometimes doubles as a brothel. Her complex use of shadows and light gives both topics an emotional, elegant beauty.

Other subjects include alligator hunting and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Though not a photojournalist, Caffery was hired by People magazine to photograph storm refugees in Baton Rouge. A fellowship from the Open Society Institute and the Soros Foundation Network allowed her to continue her study of storm victims, eventually resulting in the online publication Portrait of Neglect.

Caffery’s work is included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; New Orleans Museum of Art; George Eastman House in Rochester; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France.