For former Wessington Springs resident Jeffery Caffee, a photographic journey that began as a creative outlet evolved into a deep desire to shine a light on those who are struggling on our American streets.
A body of work aimed at illuminating the large gap between those living in poverty and the rest of the world will be exhibited at the AVA Community Art Center in Gillette, Wyo., opening on Thursday, February 13 at 6 p.m.
His two-year trek toward this gallery opening — and what initially prompted him to pick up a camera and start photographing can be connected to early beginnings in Jerauld County.
Born and raised in Wessington Springs, Jeffery Caffee moved away from Jerauld County after graduating high school in 1998 and attended university. During post-secondary, he ran afoul of the law, was charged with several different crimes, and served time in jail.
While at South Dakota State University, Caffee was called to serve a combat tour with the Army in the Iraq War from December 2003 to February 2005.
“When I got back, I struggled with reintroduction to normal life. And I was drinking a lot,” Caffee recalls.
Caffee then took a job with a Class 1 Railroad as a train conductor, and has remained with the railroad for 13 years. But addiction continued to plague him.
“Somewhere, along the way in my life, I developed an addiction to and remained addicted to alcohol and drugs for years. Exhausted, and at the advice of others, I agreed to enter a treatment facility in Billings, Montana,” Caffee said. "As a result, my new life began materializing seven years ago on August 3, 2012.”
Caffee said that with treatment complete, he experienced an overwhelming abundance of energy. With his newfound vitality, he picked up an inexpensive Nikon digital camera and began exploring photographic subjects such as his family, landscapes, wildlife, trains, and architecture.
“Although I enjoyed this, none of it was enough. I started thinking of photographing others who are still out there struggling with addiction,” Caffee stated. “After some contemplation, I packed a few belongings and left for the city streets of Denver, Colorado.”
Caffee set out alone in the streets with his camera and a few supplies. Once there, he learned there was more to be caught with his camera than ever imagined.
What Caffee found was a gaping hole that exists between those living in poverty and the rest of the world.
“The goal of Street Grunt Photography is to capture the current suffering in our world and then share that with the hope of changing stereotypes, hearts, and minds,” he said. “For a variety of reasons, these subjects are the have-nots. They live in poverty ranging from mild to extreme. No matter what, they are lovable human beings of worth. Their stories deserve to be told.”
A husband and father who supports himself financially by working as a trainman, Caffee’s preferred work is on America’s public roads, searching for street people, learning their stories, and taking photographs. Based in Gillette, Wyo., his first trip to photograph street life in Denver served as a springboard to build a body of work over the past two years that shines a light on people from all walks of life living in the streets of Nevada, California and Indian Reservations.
Alongside his Great Dane/Mastiff female Doc, Caffee sets out on foot with his backpack, camera gear, food, water and plenty of supplies to distribute to his photographic subjects. An average day of shooting spans eight to 15 miles, with Caffee and Doc completely immersed in street environments, aiming to make a connection with the people who live there.
“My dog opens up a lot of doors for me,” laughed Jeff. “People will ask about Doc and that starts communication between us. Oftentimes I let people know, ‘I photograph street life, I sense you’re a part of that’.”
Caffee’s work can be seen in an exhibit opening at the AVA Community Art Center (509 W. 2nd St. Gillette, Wyo.) on February 13. He will be in attendance at the opening event, which begins at 6 p.m.
“If you look at my work and feel authentic inspiration to be more loving and open to all who are down and out, I sincerely hope you seize that inspiration and give freely to each soul fighting to survive one more day,” Caffee stated. “The world needs more love.”
Editor’s note: This story serves as the first in a series exploring the diverse and interesting paths taken by those with Jerauld County roots. To share your story for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.