The dark and shadowy lead-in photograph for Debbie Flemming Caffery’s photobook, The Spirit & The Flesh, provides adequate notice that this is not going to be a straight forward documentary. Caffery creates mysterious photographs about the life and economic survival in a small Mexican village. As a subtext, there is also the intersection of two very old practices, prostitution and religion. These two subjects have been bumping and colliding with each other for thousands of years. Although the focus of this book is on the women and men who live here, it is mostly from the point of view of the women.
When the photographs become focused on the women who are involved in selling their bodies in the bordello, it taps into the more universal emotions of feeling trapped when performing distasteful jobs and tasks. The people in the photographs are sometimes difficult to determine as to who is exactly doing what, thus adding more mystery as a result of this ambuguity.
The men in the photographs are usually obscure and concealed, their shapes are shadows and blurs within the late night-time landscape. Many of the photographs of the men are gritty and high contrast, lacking a full tonality. It does not seem that the men of the village have much substance.
Their appearance within the photographs is that of someone who is only fleetingly present, making a quick transition and leaving no lasting impression. The men are very much like gray shadows that briefly touch the bare skin of the women, but leaving no lasting (emotional) impression. They are but brief faceless actors on this dark stage.
A second aspect is the reference to the spirit within Caffery’s photographs. There are night time photographs of the church as seen from the outside, perhaps even from the window of the neighboring bordello. The chuch’s structure is solid and massive, but within Caffery’s photographs, the sturcture appears indistinct and vague. In her photographs we can discern the profile of a familiar type of building that is associated with a church’s chapel or steeple.
Thus the church’s structure is present, but appears to be lingering in the background. Although a church is a spiritual place, it is not necessarily the spirit that Caffery is referring to in her book’s title, as the spirit could also be a reference to one’s soul.
The women are photographed differently. Caffery stated that she had asked for the participation of the women in the development of their photographs. Thus a dance developed between the photographer and the women, which adds a different dimension to these portraits. Caffery has allowed the women to create new persona’s, one of their own choosing. As portraits go, perhaps we are no closer to the inner truth about an individual, but the resulting photographs may be more telling. And I think we do get to know who they are a little better.
The women are attempting to create a personal story about their situation and who they are as individuals, to go beyond a stereotype, such as who a prostitute may be. The women will also disguise themselves, sometimes just a simple mask, other times with elaborate costumes. The women appear shrouded, wrapped, strategically covered, almost concealed, reluctant and attempting to cover the truth. Yet they still want to make their intent obvious. They hide behind a thin veil in an attempt to remain discreet, protect their identity, and likewise hide their soul. All the while living within a small community in which there are probably few secrets.
They select their attire to hint at the possibilities, create a fantasy and stir the lurid imagination. They are available in body (flesh) to provide a service, but perhaps not there in mind and soul (spirit). They don’t want any of these men to come mentally close to them, to keep them at as respectful distance as possible.
In the portraits of the women, many of them wear religious crosses. Perhaps these serve as spiritual protection, a reminder to those who use them that they are not just a tool or perhaps to ground them to their faith even in the mist of the work that they perform. There is a sense of the duality to their lives, a profession that is not condoned by the church, but stills accepts the women as members of the congregation. The two moral extremes meeting somewhere in the middle that is not well defined, a gritty gray zone much like the photographs themselves.
One of the women (below) because of her movement during the extended exposure, appears as a transparent person standing on a staircase. A wonderfully metaphoric image about someone who is not fully there, just particularly present in both body and spirit. She is but a ghost to both to the outside world and perhaps to herself. She is standing on a sea of stairs that lead up and out of the photograph, to where we don’t know. If she were a prostitute, we might be able to guess.
In the ending photograph of the book (below) there is the sharply delineated and glowing crucifixion cross adjacent to a building, that we can assume is a church. Adjacent to the cross is an open arch, that appears to lead to the street and the real world versus the religious place. The air has a thin fog and we can see the faint image of two people, one that appears to be a women, apparently walking with a dog. We don’t know who they are, if they are arriving or departing from the structure and cross, but they do appear like ghostly appreciations. A fitting and mysterious final photograph that can represent a spritual presence in the lives of those who live and work in this village.
I think that this book is also relates to the feelings of anyone who is performing a job that they do not like. You can be involved and completing the necessary tasks, but not fully committed to it. To be there in body, just not there in spirit, a shadow of real selves.
The hardbound book is beautifully printed in duotone and is case bound with a slip cover. The Foreword is a haunting poem from Ghost Sicknessby Luis Alberto Urrea and the essay by Carrie Springer adds background to the history of Caffery’s project. There is a limited edition that comes in a clamshell box with 2 signed gelatin silver prints, one each of the front and back cover images of the book.
By Douglas Stockdale