Flames shoot up from the sugarcane fields, punching the sky with thunderclouds of smoke. The fiery light glints off the lens of Debbie Fleming Caffery’s camera as it seizes the fall harvest scene.
For over three decades, she has taken pictures of these southern Louisiana acres ”” with their blazing fields, hunched-over workers singing hymns, mill machinery grinding the night and sugar-loaded barges floating down the bayou. It’s a place I’ve never been. But when I look at her silver gelatin print of that field on fire, I can almost smell the sweet burning.
In all of her photos ”” from the sugarcane fields to Katrina-ravaged churches to prostitutes in Mexico ”” there’s more feeling than fact, more mystery than materiality. Carrie Springer, senior curatorial assistant with the Whitney Museum of American Art, puts it this way: “Debbie looks for the spirit of things. She connects with the spirit of a place and people, and uses photography
to portray that. And she has a very strong, personal and distinct vision; I don’t think it could be easily confused with anyone
else’s.” Though most of Caffery’s photos clearly show faces and places, they don’t document as much as depict. Springer adds, “I think of her as an artist who uses a camera. She’s not using it to convince or make a point, but rather to express what she sees and feels.”