OIL STORM

Deb­bie Flem­ing Caf­fery

Pasatiempo - - Front Page - Casey Sanchez

It was mid-June, 2010. The oil spill in the Gulf in Mex­ico had re­cently been found to be spew­ing 40,000 bar­rels a day to­ward the Louisiana bay­ous and Florida pan­han­dle beaches. Pres­i­dent Obama had ex­tracted a prom­ise from BP to put $20 bil­lion into a dam­age claims fund. Carl-Hen­ric Svan­berg, the Swedish-born chair­man of BP, re­sponded: “I hear com­ments some­times that large oil com­pa­nies are greedy com­pa­nies or don’t care. But that is not the case in BP. We care about the small peo­ple.” CNN an­chor An­der­son Cooper, ap­pear­ing on his prime­time pro­gram, an­swered back: “There aren’t any small peo­ple here. ... This is a land of gi­ants.”

New Or­leans pho­tog­ra­pher Deb­bie Flem­ing Caf­fery said Cooper’s words struck a nerve. She named her se­ries of tin­types of crab and oys­ter fish­er­men af­fected by the oil spill Gi­ants

— Men of the Waters. “It just re­ally moved me. I re­al­ized that all of my life that’s the kind of peo­ple I’ve been pho­tograph­ing and that I ad­mire. The peo­ple that go out fish­ing and al­li­ga­tor hunt­ing and the farm­ers and the sug­ar­cane work­ers,” Caf­fery said in an in­ter­view with Pasatiempo. “All these hard­work­ing peo­ple sym­bol­ize a gi­ant to me.”

Caf­fery has spent much of her pro­fes­sional life pho­tograph­ing the cus­toms and work cul­ture of the Deep South, from sugar-cane har­vesters to Ca­jun al­li­ga­tor hun­ters to sur­vivors of Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina. Her work has been pub­lished by Santa Fe houses Ra­dius Books ( The Spirit & The Flesh) and Twin Palms (Polly and The Shad­ows). Her tin­types of Gulf Coast com­mer­cial fish­er­men are cur­rently on dis­play at the Santa Fe Art In­sti­tute. On Fri­day, March 25, Caf­fery takes part in a panel dis­cus­sion with marine tox­i­col­o­gist Riki Ott and eco­log­i­cal artist Aviva Rah­mani at the Santa Fe Univer­sity of Art and De­sign.

Get­ting the pho­to­graphs was not easy. “I usu­ally can fo­cus in on things, but BP had all these rules,” Caf­fery said. “They in­tim­i­dated the press. I’m not ex­pe­ri­enced like a jour­nal­ist, so I was kind of lost.” Even with a press pass is­sued by the pres­i­dent of Plaque­m­ines Parish — which strad­dles the Mis­sis­sippi River as it flows into the Gulf of Mex­ico — Caf­fery found her­self re­buked by heav­ily armed se­cu­rity guards try­ing to reach the oil-tarred beaches and bay­ous of Port Four­chon, the state’s south­ern­most port. “You were for­bid­den to go out on the beach. There were all these in­tim­i­dat­ing se­cu­rity peo­ple. There were so many prob­lems get­ting ac­cess with these in­tim­i­dat­ing se­cu­rity peo­ple, and the Na­tional Guard were in­tim­i­dat­ing too. The Hal­libur­ton guards were pro­tected by the Na­tional Guard. It was bizarre.

“It’s tough work­ing out there. In the early days, there were a lot of prisoners work­ing out there. At first, they had them in their pris­oner shirts. Then peo­ple in the area got so up­set that they were hir­ing prisoners, which was re­ally cheap, in­stead of the peo­ple who were out of work. The en­ergy over there was so creepy, be­cause you got all these creepy pris­oner peo­ple there clean­ing up. Then you’re in­tim­i­dated by any type of guard or po­lice­man, be­cause they don’t want the press around. They sure in­tim­i­dated me.”

Caf­fery ended up fo­cus­ing on the har­bor in Pointe à la Hache, a tiny fish­ing town on the east bank of Mis­sis­sippi River, half­way be­tween the Gulf of Mex­ico and New Or­leans. The oily sheen of the tin­type is fit­ting for the sub­ject mat­ter, and the opaque, slightly sepia-toned na­ture that comes from plac­ing a pho­to­graphic emul­sion on an iron sheet lend her work the mys­tique of a 19th-cen­tury da­guerreo­type.

In one tin­type, Gi­ants – Cap­tain Bryan, a fish­ing cap­tain wear­ing shorts stands an­kle deep in the dark wa­ter, sug­gest­ing an in­ti­mate and torn con­nec­tion to the sea. Gi­ants – Oliver is an im­age of fish­er­man stand­ing proudly, a seafood de­liv­ery truck be­hind him. The viewer’s knowl­edge of the cat­a­strophic events of 2010 hov­ers over these im­ages.

Caf­fery said that this was the first time she had worked with tin­types. She be­gan by load­ing her 8 x 10 cam­era with a tin plate coated with a light-sen­si­tive pho­to­graphic emul­sion. In the bru­tal south­ern Louisiana heat, the emul­sion melted, forc­ing her to keep her equip­ment on ice and con­duct shoots quickly. Later, she moved to shoot­ing on film, mak­ing 8 by 10 prints, which she then used to make tin­types by fac­ing the print against the tin plate in a con­tact holder. She ex­posed the con­tact holder to light and then pro­cessed the tin in a tra­di­tional de­vel­oper.

In the cur­rent Santa Fe ex­hibit, Caf­fery also in­cludes some tra­di­tional black-and-white pho­tos. One im­age shows an oil-stained pel­i­can in a net be­ing trans­ported for clean­ing; an­other has a metal cross marked “un­known” atop a makeshift grave iden­ti­fied only by bricks stacked in the shal­low mud. The most dis­turb­ing photo of the group is a shot of a white haz­mat suit float­ing in an oil-tarred sea — it has an eerie echo of the im­ages of float­ing bod­ies that emerged af­ter Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina.

Caf­fery hoped to make on­go­ing vis­its with the fish­er­men and fam­i­lies she pho­tographed, as she’s done with her sub­jects in the past. But the oil spill and its cav­al­cade of law­suits have si­lenced many of the peo­ple she has shot. “I pho­tographed a shrimp­ing fam­ily, and they won’t call me back any­more. That’s one thing that is hap­pen­ing with peo­ple. My daugh­ter is work­ing on a film about peo­ple who got sick from clean­ing up the oil. A lot of these peo­ple’s lawyers won’t let any­one talk any­more.”

While frus­trated by the cir­cum­stances, Caf­fery un­der­stands that these fam­i­lies’ pend­ing legal set­tle­ments may be the only way for them to sup­port them­selves in the near fu­ture. “The area was hurt so bad by Ka­t­rina. It’s not just born and bred Louisianans,” she said. “The Viet­namese have strug­gled ter­ri­bly since Ka­t­rina. There are a lot of His­pan­ics there, and there are a lot of Croa­t­ian fish­ers. It’s one of the rich­est ar­eas in our coun­try for fish­ing.”

Caf­fery’s pho­tos are mov­ing, in no small part be­cause of the rap­port be­tween sub­ject and pho­tog­ra­pher. For sev­eral years, Caf­fery has been lead­ing stu­dent pho­tog­ra­phy ses­sions in the Ca­jun coun­try of south­ern Louisiana. “I’m just very hon­est, and that’s what I teach my stu­dents. Tell them who you are, where you’re com­ing from, and why you’re in­ter­ested,” Caf­fery said of her sub­jects. “I tell my stu­dents what I do. Most peo­ple like to have their pic­ture taken.

“Pho­tog­ra­phy gives a voice to peo­ple who don’t have a voice. They are happy that some­body is go­ing to tell peo­ple about them. The oystermen want their story told.”

Deb­bie Flem­ing Caf­fery: Cap­tured Pel­i­can, Barataria Bay, 2010, gelatin sil­ver print

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