Works in Progress - Winter 2019

The Delta Blues

A photographer documents former boomtowns in the South

By Naomi Shavin | December 3, 2018
Debbie Fleming Caffery, Charlie Horse. Clarksdale, Mississippi/Courtesy of the High Museum
Debbie Fleming Caffery, Charlie Horse. Clarksdale, Mississippi/Courtesy of the High Museum

Long before the “forgotten” people of America became the focus of postelection media coverage, Louisiana-based photographer Debbie Fleming Caffery was documenting former boomtowns that had lost their economic base and their population. Caffery is best known for her intimate black-and-white photographs of African-American men and women in the South. Her work has also taken her to brothels in Mexico and post–Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. In 2017, Atlanta’s High Museum commissioned Caffery for its ongoing Picturing the South series, allowing her to return to areas in rural Mississippi and Louisiana that she has visited and documented off and on for 30 years.

I started exploring these two areas—northern Louisiana and Mississippi in the Delta—in 1988. I took some photographs, but it wasn’t until 2011 that I really got into the work. Things had changed, of course, since 1988. Things were looking grim then in most of the downtown areas, but in 2011 things were really bad. I discovered all these little towns where the downtowns were boarded up or the buildings were collapsing and schools had closed and there weren’t doctors and there was barely a grocery store.

I photographed a lot in a little bar in Woodville, Mississippi, where everybody in town hung out. All these years I made prints of everyone, and even if I didn’t take pictures, I’d stop and talk to them. One of the people I photographed a lot was put in a nursing home, one died—all these things. I’d walk in, and they’d say, ‘We have bad news,’ and then they’d tell me. So that was a grounding place for me, because they really accepted me into the community.

I just always do the same thing. I get out of my car, and walk around, people start talking to me, and it leads to all kinds of things. People tell you stories. There’s this constant storytelling, but it’s true storytelling. I love stories. I grew up with a lot of good storytellers, and so it just fills me up.

Sometimes I do organize portraits. In fact, one of the pictures I love the most is of a couple that’s majorly in love, and they asked me to take some pictures of them together. The picture is extraordinary. I set it up where they were in the light, but I wasn’t thinking of taking a great picture. It just was luck. Luck happens.

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