Debbie Fleming Caffery
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