true artist must always mix the inner substance of the soul with
the essence of the subject to derive droplets of imagery from the
resultant alchemy. This magical process requires total involvement
of the heart. Debbie Fleming Caffery's work radiates this fusion
of her personal passion with the emotional energy of her subjects.
From this fundamental union comes the depth and power of her images."
- Francis Ford Coppola, 2002
Emotional and mythic vision pervade Debbie Fleming Caffery’s
evocative images of life in Louisiana, Portugal, and Mexico. Her
photographs are not objective documents, but poetic stories that
capture the mystery and spirit of the people and places she encounters.
She has received numerous awards, including the Governor of Louisiana’s
award for excellence in the arts and the prestigious Lou Stoumen
Award from the Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego. Her work
is in the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art, New
York, the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Metropolitan Museum,
New York, and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. The Shadows
is her first major monograph in 12 years. Wendy Lewis, Director
of photo-eye Gallery, recently interviewed Caffery.
Many of your photographs convey a powerful emotional response between
yourself and the subject of your photography; how do you create
these connections? Are they instantaneous or developed over a long
period of time? Is this connection with your subjects what you've
referred to as ‘falling in love’ with your subjects?
Caffery: The Shadows
Twin Palms, Santa Fe,
2002. 96 pages,
DFC: The attraction I feel to a subject whether it be person, animal,
situation or place, develops into a relationship that feels like
being in love. I have had a love affair with sugar cane harvesting
in Louisiana since l973. I photograph the harvest every season just
like the farmer harvests the cane. My work is a visual articulation
of an emotional and sensual response to my subjects—to stories
heard and the smells and sounds in the environment. I spend years
on most of my projects; without the major ingredient of time, these
intense relationships would be nonexistent. Each project flows into
the other, as can be seen in my new book, The Shadows.
WL: Your work holds a continuum of shadow, darkness and life. What
draws you to the darker realms? Can you elaborate on the balance
you maintain between darkness and the spark of life within your
I grew up in Louisiana in the heart of two distinct, strong cultures
known for their great story telling, music and food: Cajun and African-American.
I absorbed these cultures into my imagination and am attracted to
cultures that are organic and emotional, where I can feel and somehow
share the rhythm and beat of the people, where the past is on the
shoulders of the community. I am extremely attracted to shades of
mystery and shadow. I wait, observe, and listen long enough so that
a combination of my emotions and those of my subjects and their
environment occur. This lets a brightness come through in my photographs,
just as the light and sparks of life are heard in the lullabies
I grew up with—old Gospel spirituals and Cajun ballads. My
challenge is always to balance the emotions of struggle, tenderness
and hope so that it shines through in a body of work.
WL: You have recently moved to Sante Fe; what drew you here and
how has the move affected your photography?
DFC: I was invited here as an artist in residence at the Marion
Center at the College of Santa Fe, to teach a class in documentary
photography. I devoted five months to teaching and printing a new
portfolio of my work on "Women of the Night." Being in
Santa Fe was so nourishing to my life as an artist that after the
residency I did not want to return to Louisiana. Although the people
Louisiana had birthed the creativity in my work, I no long felt
nourished there as an artist. I have not photographed here much,
but the experience of living here has enriched my heart and soul.
Being in a community that cherishes and celebrates the creative
spirit is the greatest gift of living here. Working with photo-eye
and Jack Woody at Twin Palms Publishers has been extraordinary.
While living here I have found the time and the support to edit
years of work, which has led me to a better understanding of my
photographs. Santa Fe—this vast, dry landscape—is such
a contrast to the humid South in which I grew up, it inspires me
to explore the shadows of my new home.