In Conversation: Kacey Jeffers
Kacey Jeffers makes photographs that borrow the sensibilities of fashion photography to tell stories about the world around him. Jeffers' vulnerable and personal series, Every Day is Another Chance, was made upon his return to Nevis from New York City in 2018; it was shortlisted for the prestigious 2019 Sony World Photography Award. That project led to his 2020 series Uniform, which presents views of subtle rebellion, playfulness, and the perseverance of youth. I invited Alexandra Gooding, an emerging Toronto-based arts writer and researcher originally from the Caribbean, to join me in interviewing Kacey about his photography practice.
Craig D'Arville, FFOTO Co-founder
Alex Gooding: Hi Kacey.
Kacey Jeffers: Hi Alex.
Alex Gooding: I'm a Caribbean girl; born and raised in Barbados. To be able to interview a fellow Caribbean person is very special to me. I recently assisted Dr. Julie Crooks, Curator, Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora at the Art Gallery of Ontario, on her recently opened exhibition Fragments of Epic Memory. The exhibition is about reconstructing and disrupting historical narratives and visual representation of the Caribbean – something that your photography also does.
I’ve seen your outdoor show at BAND Gallery – it’s beautiful work. I'd love to know a little bit more about your background and what led you to photography. I know your path began with modeling, right?
Kacey Jeffers: I was born and raised in Nevis, and growing up there, there aren’t necessarily any options outside of traditional career paths. And I think, for a long time, that was my end-goal; to be a doctor, a lawyer, or similar. Around when I was 16 or 17, America's Next Top Model on the air waves, and that really opened up my mind to like, “Oh wow, there's this whole other thing!” I had been aware of fashion magazines, but I never really had a context for that within my own self. It opened up my mind. I could see myself modeling or being in that industry. And from that point I basically just got really obsessed.
Selections from Uniform, exhibited outdoors at BAND Gallery and Cultural Centre, Toronto
Alex Gooding: I love it.
Kacey Jeffers: I started just researching as much as I could about the fashion industry, from here, from Nevis. And just finding out who the editors were, finding out who the agencies were, models, everything I could – like looking at French photography and stuff like that. And then around 2011 I went to London; I had signed with a modelling agency there and I moved to London for a couple months. while I was in London, a photographer friend of mine from Barbados was there, Fabien Montique, and we would hang out while he was shooting. I would sort of assist him, and for me it was like, “Oh wow, this is so interesting. I could be on this other side of the lens as well.”
And then I came back to Nevis because I didn't have a work visa to stay in London. And I came back and started figuring things out. I got a camera and started shooting. And then the next year, like 2013, I quit my job, and I went to New York for three months and I was like, well, I'm just going to go and figure things out there and see what happens – whether I'm going to give modeling one more try, or give photography my attention. And it so happens that, for me, photography came very easily. My friend Fabien arranged for me to meet with some agencies to do test shoots.
Alex Gooding: Wow.
Kacey Jeffers: So it basically started there. The transition wasn't that hard for me to do because growing up I had done so much pouring over fashion magazines and tear sheets. I had already developed a sense of what I liked as a photographer and, to this day, it's still pretty much the same. It has evolved, but it's still pretty much the same. There was a core group of photographers that I really liked, like Peter Lindbergh, Steven Meisel, and Cindy Sherman. I love Cindy Sherman. So when I moved into photography, there wasn't much of a shift necessarily because...
Alex Gooding: ...Because it was more like a lateral shift as opposed to a whole new learning curve.
Kacey Jeffers: Right. For me it was kind of like, “Oh, well I have all this knowledge already of the business, so I might as well just use it,” right?
Alex Gooding: You said it wasn't a difficult transition from modelling to making photographs, but how did you find the shift from being in front of the camera to being behind the camera?
Kacey Jeffers: I mean, I tend to not look at things as being easy or difficult, but I think… how should I describe it? I think it just felt more invigorating to be the one who had control. Ultimately, it just felt more powerful to be in control of the image in a way that, as a model – especially as a Black male model – you really don't have, you know?
Alex Gooding: Yes, I hear what you mean.
Kacey Jeffers: So that felt powerful. And actually, I really enjoyed the aspects of directing the conception of stories and storytelling much more. As a model – I mean, I don't know how things are now – but you really wouldn't have that sort of creative freedom.
Alex Gooding: You're sort of the pawn in a larger game.
Kacey Jeffers: Right. Which doesn't mean that models don't have a place in the decision-making process but generally, unless you're a big-name model or celebrity, you're not going to walk into a situation and be like, “This is what we are doing today.”
Alex Gooding: Along with fashion photography, you've also done a bit of reportage, correct?
Kacey Jeffers: I mean, for me, I do photography and sometimes you need to tell a story from a reportage point of view. The industry likes to separate people, and put people into boxes, but I'm a photographer. I do photography. And whatever I decide is best to tell the story, is best to tell the story.
Alex Gooding: That leads to another question I have: Do you consider yourself a photographer, or an artist? Is the distinction important to you? Because these days, there are some people who are adamant about describing themselves as being either one or the other.
Kacey Jeffers: Well, I consider myself to be a “creative”; a storyteller, and photography is just one tool that I'm using at any given time.
Alex Gooding: You mentioned that you find inspiration in the photographs of Peter Lindbergh, Steven Meisel, and Cindy Sherman. Have you had any formal training or courses in photography to help hone your skills?
Kacey Jeffers: Nope.
Alex Gooding: Being a self-taught photographer is interesting to me because right now there are so many artists who are being told, “You have to have a degree or a Masters to become successful.”
Kacey Jeffers: Right. I learned primarily from looking at images. From looking at really good photography. A lot of my references come from 1980s, 90s editorial photography. And a lot of it is, initially at least, from a very “fashion” sort-of space. Looking at old Italian Vogues and all these sources that you can find online. So, when I look at the work of someone like Guy Bourdin, and the images are so composed – they’re telling tight stories – I pay attention to that. And that means I'm primarily self-taught, whatever that really means…
Alex Gooding: …“Whatever that means,” right! Craig and I were talking earlier about how we're both glad that you didn't go through that churn of the post-secondary route because the result is your unique approach – your sense of composition; your feel for colour. You adopt a “fashion” sensibility to tell stories about real people.
Kacey Jeffers: I think you've described my work perfectly. I think there is obviously a very “fashion” aspect to it, but then it's not slick, you know what I mean?
Alex Gooding: But it is still carefully considered.
Kacey Jeffers: And then there's where that reportage aspect comes in. The portrait, for me, the portrait is like… I would say I'm a portrait photographer first, more than anything else, because everything is always driven by this idea of the person, the subject. How can I get some essence of truth about a person’s character, even if it's just my interpretation of that person.
Alex Gooding: And that’s interesting to me in the context of your series Uniform, because instead of saying, "Oh, look, they're all in the same uniform," you're saying, "No, despite that uniform, their individuality is still coming through."
Kacey Jeffers: Right.
Alex Gooding: Uniform conjures nostalgia for me because when I was growing up in Barbados, kids had to wear school uniforms and follow rigid rules – to the point that girls are not allowed to wear makeup. I would get detention for wearing hoop earrings. And yet there were still students that you would see, even only at a glance, and you’d register aspects of personality because of the way that one girl might always wears her belt, or another whose skirt would always be a little bit too short or a little bit too long… like little acts of defiance.
Kacey Jeffers: Yeah, yeah, yeah! All that you're saying about the Uniform project is so spot-on. And I think with this project, what is missing in the wider conversations is because people look at the portraits and they sometimes only see the kids, and not their individual attention to detail – and all of that, intentionally, is very surface, right?
Alex Gooding: For sure.
Kacey Jeffers: Because then underneath all of that is also remnants of colonialism, right? And that is huge because it shows the effects of that era and that period on us today, and how that history shapes our culture. And without it being some sad story or some oppressive sentiment, or whatever, but it just shows that this mode of presentation is something that came out of that, and I guess in some ways, how we've been able, as a people, to assert individuality despite that.
Alex Gooding: Yes, I see that, too.
Kacey Jeffers: So some girls would wear they're hair in a certain way. And that's how you'd express individuality at a young age, how you'd express creativity, and you'd express your own innovation within the rules, right? Like, "Okay, well, how can I stand out from this person or that person?" It could be through shoes; it could be a hair style…
Alex Gooding: For me, it used to be a very, very messy tie that I would get told-off about all the time, covered in paint from being in the art room.
Kacey Jeffers: Right. And then there’s also how Uniform is specifically about conformity, but also about subtle acts of rebellion. The image with Juliska sitting on the desk, and she's blowing the bubble gum. I mean, to a person outside that context, they will be like, "Oh, it's such a good image," but there's so many more layers to that because she is being so defiant in that moment – sitting on a desk and chewing gum.
Alex Gooding: A big, big no-no.
Kacey Jeffers: And I think that was why I wanted that image to be front and center to represent the series because to the outside world who might not understand it, it's a good image, but also the layers that it possesses; those are as important. The way in which Juliska is looking through the camera, she's very present in that moment of her defiance and... she's owning her girlhood, in a way, that I feel a lot of young women might not be able to do at that age.
In our communities, there's a lot of class systems happening, as well. And maybe kids who come from a certain family might wear a certain accessory. I don't think that really is shown in uniform that much because, well, number one, I didn't really know the socioeconomic backgrounds of the kids. And that wasn't even a part of it all, but I'm just saying that is also something in the reality of it, where certain kids and sometimes, depending on even the grade they are in, you might find sometimes the kids who are in the lower grades, they were the ones who made so much more of an effort to look good. And to do their hair really nice. And they were the ones who might cut their skirts a bit shorter, put powder around their necks, and stuff like that.
Alex Gooding: We should talk about that. I don't know the historic root of powdering, but I suspect that it is also a trace of colonialism. It’s a practice that generally only darker-skinned students would do. They put talcum powder on their chests to make the skin you look paler.
Kacey Jeffers: Emulating “masters”...
Alex Gooding: I haven't seen any of those images from you, but I love that you are giving attention to that.
Kacey Jeffers: That's on my list of projects that I would love to do; a beauty story about those kinds of things, which I find is so fascinating because it's, and again, to take them out of the context of the region, people wouldn't necessarily understand, but it's just so fascinating to me. And to this day, girls still do that. It's crazy.
Alex Gooding: You mentioned that the idea of the powdered chests might go over the heads of some international viewers, but isn't that something that they should know about? I mean, the context of lingering colonialism informing standards of beauty?
Kacey Jeffers: There are so many books about youth in the world. A lot of them are very much from a white-specific experience. Maybe some of that I could understand, and maybe some of it is just so far off from my own experiences that I cannot understand, but I can relate. But with Uniform my intent was: You know what? I would love to see something that if I were 10-year-old and I found it, I would be pleased, and I would be able to see myself in it. And I would be able to feel, not like an outsider, to feel seen, and heard, and understood. So that was really my driving force. And that's the thread that runs through everything that I do now.
I mean, when I first started, I wasn’t very intentional in what I was doing, I don’t think. Uniform came to me at a time when I had left New York in 2018; came back home. I was just trying to figure out what's next in life in general. And it was just one of those things where, in sort of re-evaluating my space in that world – the fashion world – and how I would like to go forward. Uniform became a new foundation for my work.
Alex Gooding: I'm curious to know how you think growing up in Nevis has shaped you in terms of your practice? I know for myself I often feel like I have one foot in Barbados and one foot in Toronto, and trying to navigate that sometimes can be a little bit overwhelming or frustrating. And how does having your feet in both New York and Nevis influence your practice?
Kacey Jeffers: I think growing up here in Nevis that I couldn't wait to leave. So when a series of events led me to live in New York, that was so good. And at the same time, I think I never really felt like I could create anything here at home in Nevis. It was always like, "I don't have models, I don't have this, I don't have that. You know, I could just do it in New York." But until I came home in 2018 and I couldn't go anywhere, pretty much, and really started to think about like, "Okay, well, am I not going to create here? What can I create? What can I do only here?”
Things really started to shift. And I guess that was me going much deeper within myself and wanting to upend a lot of what was at my foundation about creativity as well, because again, it was not something that I grew up thinking about. And wanting to find a way forward through all of that. And just, I think now more so than ever, there's this feeling of “one foot in, one foot out”. I kind of feel like I am sort of nowhere, but everywhere at the same time. And I've definitely come to a place of understanding in how Nevis can play a role in my artistic journey and how I can mine memory and mine our culture and diasporic culture to tell stories that are human stories that are about human connection. And that can also change the perception of what it means to be from the Caribbean or to live a life in the Caribbean.
I've definitely made the best work that I've created, being here, and having to be here. I mean, would I be able to create Uniform had I stayed in New York? No. Would I be able to have done a lot of stuff that I'm able to do here? So I think that's where I'm at now in terms of merging both worlds and figuring out how I can be a bridge in that way. Like, how can I be a vessel for these stories? Because then on the international scene there aren't that many photographers, well artists, from this region…
Alex Gooding: Mm-hmm.
Kacey Jeffers: Even within this Caribbean space, the voices are so different. When you look at Nadia Huggins, what she does in Saint Vincent, which is so amazing. It's so different from what I'm doing. Or Wayne Lawrence, who's from Saint Kitts originally and now lives in New York; he’s done such incredible work – which is good because we do need diverse voices from the region. Because when people think of diversity, they don’t always see that within Black people there is also diversity.
Alex Gooding: Yes, and within the Caribbean, we're a variety of people from so many different ethnic groups over the centuries that it’s important to acknowledge the variety of perspectives here.
You observed that there's not a huge number of Caribbean artists who are widely recognized internationally. However, there are some developments starting to happen in terms of collections, as with the Art Gallery of Ontario and its recent commitment to showcasing African diaspora artists and artworks. And TERN Gallery in The Bahamas recently launched and attended its first international art fair. Do you sense that we’re on the edge of a moment where Caribbean artists and creatives will gain that international recognition?
Kacey Jeffers: I have no idea. I don't know. Honestly, it's not something I think about. For me that's like politics. I would say this is the thing: When you're in it, it's easy for you to say "Yes, these things are moving along." I’m more like, "You know what? Whatever. I'm just going to focus on creating, not worry myself about the politics of it and just do all I can do."
Alex Gooding: Craig, I know you have some questions for Kacey…
Craig D’Arville: I sure do. Kacey, can you give us some background about Every Day is Another Chance, an earlier series that we’re offering collectors via FFOTO?
Kacey Jeffers: When I came home to Nevis in 2018, that project was the first thing that I started doing. A part of that was also, maybe not from desperation, but more so from wanting to cling to photography as a life raft. So, I started doing stuff with my family and doing portraits. I hadn't been at home for about three years. That's sort of… how do you call it? That wanting to use the camera to sort of deal with myself, deal with relationships, and to refamiliarize myself with being home, really. I had to deal with that kind of mental shift that comes with that. Being in New York for a few years, and then coming back to Nevis, is so different.
Every Day is Another Chance was showing me that I could go deeper within myself as a photographer. I could use the camera in a different way. Instead of projecting it outside, it could be used to project inward and to document my psychological frame of mind. That project really peeled back a lot of layers within myself and revealed a lot of depth that I could go into as an artist. I think because of that I was able to think of Uniform, because then I had already exposed myself in such a way that I felt comfortable looking for those types of things in someone else.
Craig D’Arville: There is an intense vulnerability depicted in Every Day is Another Chance. The feel of the series seems to be about seeking acceptance, but also pushing beyond that need for acceptance because you have come to accept yourself. That made me wonder, in doing all of this portrait work at home and with family members, were they supportive?
Kacey Jeffers: I mean, they were supportive. They were supportive in the sense of ... They participated, right? I think they enjoyed that aspect of it. Then it's just like the element of being at home feeling in a safe space, I wouldn't say that necessarily was my thing. I think I use the camera more so to make it a safer space for me, especially having not lived here for three years and then coming back, and everything was pretty much the same. I had grown, but then I didn't necessarily feel like there was much growth around me. Not even just at home, but also, like, culturally. Like the same things I left, I came back and they were still here. So, it was just, I guess, in some ways that was almost like a reverse culture shock. The camera allowed me to document how I felt about that and look at these latent family dynamics, these sort of things that are still the same, and to document them not to preserve them, but to make peace with them. Then it's just like the sharing of them, these images, which is super-personal, I felt freedom in doing that; once the image has been shared, now everyone can see what I see.
Kacey Jeffers: There was an element of freedom that I was able to step towards, and be a part of, because of that.
Craig D’Arville: There's also a suggestion of the old saying “You can’t go home again”.
Kacey Jeffers: Right. That was all of how I was feeling and where I was mentally and emotionally. Again, the camera was the safest space that I could be, to be honest, because it kept me creative. Every Day is Another Chance wasn’t like the work that I was doing before, work that in some regards tied me to this idea of who I “should" be as a photographer. It was actually freeing me from that. Like I didn't have a model, I didn't have this, I didn't have that; the kind of things that we think that we need to create. I just had my truth and I just had my memory and I just had my feelings and my family to be a part of it.
Then I submitted photos from Every Day is Another Chance to the Sony World Photography Awards and they got shortlisted. That sort of validation really was important, in the sense that it made me feel like I could keep going, doing what I'm doing. Because, honestly, I was kind of like, "I don't know how I'm going to continue being a photographer, or if I even should." Having these images being validated in that way, that was really important.
Craig D'Arville: Your photographs shows information, but also emotion. It's such a hard thing to capture in a shot. Do you see your career heading towards longer-form narrative series like the work of, say, Gordon Parks?
Kacey Jeffers: Gordon Parks is one of my favorite photographers. The kind of career that he had, that's the kind of career that I would love to have. My version of that. He went in with so much respect for his subjects. And again, using the camera to reveal what he wanted to reveal that would give his subjects humanity and dignity, you know? And I think even when he was photographing poverty, like deep poverty in Harlem, there's still that elegance and that beauty that he's given them rather than if... we see like a lot of, historically, those kinds of images being done by white photographers, and we don't always see the humanity. We see the worst of human tragedies, right? And we don't really get to see how these people might see themselves in these circumstances. Because even if you're living in those kinds of situations, you might still be able to see a glimpse of, "Hey, this, for a while, is all I've got, but I love it. It means something to me." Even Parks’ fashion stuff was amazing. And I think there's a reason why his work is able to grab us, and still be so resonant is because at the heart of it is that human-ness and that respect for human life.
Craig D'Arville: Let’s wrap up our time together by talking about some of your recent Instagram posts. These new portraits are playful and experimental. Are you beginning to explore something more significant here?
"Painted Faces", 2021, in collaboration with Vaughn Anslyn
Kacey Jeffers: I’ve always wanted to do beauty projects. I decided to finally give it a go, and do it in a way that felt authentic to me. The notion of beauty is evolving, the language of photography is evolving, and the commercial image is evolving. And I think for someone like me who definitely loves storytelling, even if I’m telling a story about a lipstick, I want to explore how can I make it interesting and engaging. With this project, it truly was about being more playful and having fun! It’s a collaboration with my friend Vaughn Anslyn, an esteemed Nevisian artist. The beauty brand Shiseido sent us some products to play with. At the end of the day, we love doing art, and we love commercial bookings! I believe art and commerce can co-exist. I want to translate how I see things into this type of commercial way without losing myself, but also, to have fun. You know what I mean?
"Painted Faces", 2021, in collaboration with Vaughn Anslyn
Kacey Jeffers’ work is currently exhibiting outdoors at BAND Gallery and Cultural Centre in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood. An in-person conversation with the artist is in the works for later this year.
View all artworks by Kacey Jeffers.
Alexandra Gooding (b. Barbados, 1993) is an arts administrator and an independent scholar. Her research focuses on enhancing the accessibility of collections from a Circum-Caribbean perspective and analysing historical photographic representations of this region and its peoples. She currently works at the Ryerson Image Centre and the Art Gallery of Ontario, and volunteers with the Museums Association of the Caribbean.
(photo credit © Laura Margaret Ramsey)