Gillette resident changes his life with ‘street project,’ hopes to change others as well

JP Caffee discusses his photography on display at the AVA Community Art Center in Gillette. Caffee's work that he posts through Street Grunt Photography seeks to give attention to homeless, addicts and others who are ignored by society. (Photo by August Frank, Gillette News Record)

GILLETTE — Standing amid a green landscape on the Pine Ridge Reservation is a weary Ogallala Lakota Sioux coming to grips with her need to move away from her home, her life as she has always known it.

Taking her photograph that day was a 14-year Gillette resident, Jeffrey “JP” Caffee, who chooses to train his camera on the nearly invisible people in our society.

The soon-to-be 40-year-old self-trained photographer refers to them as the “have-nots.” They’re the homeless, the marginalized, the victims, the poor, the addicted, the mentally ill, the abused, the drug-addled, the veterans and the otherwise lost. They share beauty and ugliness at the same time and he captures their anger, hurt and humor.

Caffee has found his mission, his purpose. He’s found beauty in the people occupying those haunting landscapes, the wild streets. They are easily forgotten and overlooked by many, yet he said he has chosen instead to “shine a light” on their pain, their stories, their lives.

That’s how he has found his own salvation.

That’s why he turned his camera on “The Widow,” as he calls the proud Native American woman who resonates with dignity despite her pain. Violet Never Misses A Shot “contemplates the grueling winter and the subsequent flooding on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota,” Caffee writes alongside her photograph hanging on the wall of the AVA Community Art Center in Gillette.

Violet is one of 22 who occupy the walls of the arts center in the first exhibition of Caffee’s work. He wants to memorialize her and the lives of those he meets on his travels throughout the down-and-out areas of the nation.

“Recently widowed, Violet shared with me how much she misses her husband. The soft, yet clear-spoken woman is exhausted. She hopes to leave the reservation soon,” he writes on his Street Grunt Photography Facebook page.

Caffee’s job — as he sees it, his pursuit — is to make sure these distinct personalities are never forgotten. He shares their images and stories in whatever space he can find. It’s difficult to pull your eyes away from them.

Caffee started his quest nearly eight years ago while battling his own addiction to alcohol and drugs. A former Army “grunt” who served in Iraq in the early years of this century, his once troubled and wild youth had “spun out of control.”

His first wife gave him an ultimatum to get sober or she would leave him, which ultimately happened. His railroad co-workers and family also encouraged him to seek treatment, he said.

Caffee had tried to stay clean himself and that always failed. One day he checked himself in for treatment and quickly understood he wanted that attempt to stick.

It was so emotionally, mentally and psychologically draining, he didn’t want to have to do it again.

“When I got out, I had more energy, time, money and needed something good to funnel it all into and something that would help me stay sober,” he said.

He tried fishing. He tried golfing. Then he picked up a camera.

But that wasn’t enough. He took photos of his kids, wildlife, trains and landscapes, churches, bars and abandoned buildings.

While it all helped, it didn’t have that staying power he sought, Caffee said.

Then four years ago, he vividly remembers having intense cravings to use again. He grabbed his blue Alcoholics Anonymous book off the shelf in his home and began calling the others he went through treatment with who had signed the book and included their phone numbers.

He called and called.

“I couldn’t find anybody that was still sober,” he said. “Either I talked to them or their family members. And finally I just quit calling. It was so emotionally heavy.”

He thought about them. He could remember who they were. He thought about what they must be going through.

“I thought, ‘You know, all the people in the world there, dealing with addiction, but I have no idea who they are. They are completely faceless to me.’”

That led to a moment of clarity, an epiphany. And ultimately to something selfish that led him to the generosity and humanity he shares today.

Caffee has always thought of himself as a grunt from his days in the Army. He decided to photograph those he found on the streets as a stark reminder of why he needed to stay sober.

That was the start of Street Grunt Photography.

“I was scared. I didn’t know fully what I was getting into, but I just combated that by putting one foot in front of the other,” he said.

As his skill has deepened and developed, so has his empathy and understanding.

“It’s kept me sober now for three years,” he said.

“When I first set out, my focus was to photograph addiction and addicts in their environment, doing their thing. And then, when I was out there I realized, man, there’s so much more. Homelessness and poverty overall. It’s everywhere. So I just expanded and evolved to take it all in.”

About two years ago, he adopted a dog from the shelter. “Doc,” a female, is part Great Dane and part mastiff.

“She was a stray they had no history on,” Caffee said. “I didn’t know her name, she was not trained, she didn’t know any basic commands and she was enormous.

“There were times when I had second thoughts and wondered, ‘Oh, maybe this was a mistake.’ But it turned out to be the best $33 I ever spent. Now she travels with me and she opens a lot of doors for me, too.”

He and his wife have four children, ages 4-13, and he still works as a conductor out of Gillette with Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad.

“I still have a mortgage and groceries to buy,” he said.

He’s able to make his photographic journeys on his vacations or days off, sometimes with his family. They stay in motels and enjoy shopping or other activities while he walks the streets.

His routine is similar, regardless of where he and Doc go. They sleep overnight in his parked car and bring a cooler filled with food. He spends usually two to four days on the streets, shooting those he encounters from early morning to night.

He talks his way into their lives, gets their permission to take photographs — whether it’s shooting drugs or pimping on the streets — and tells their stories.

His stops have included inner cities and homeless shelters in Denver, Las Vegas, Slab City in California (a haven for “travelers”) and elsewhere. He and Doc travel on foot with just a backpack for his gear and food or warm socks he hands out as needed.

“It does take a lot of time, energy, courage,” he said. “I don’t want to give the impression that this is always safe. You know, there’s been some really sketchy situations that I’ve been in. … You’ve got to be protective of yourself, defensive.”

He makes no money on this pursuit that fills his soul. If he receives support or backing, he puts all of that into what he gives to those he finds on the streets.

Giving voice to the forgotten drives him. Caffee offers images of what we’ve come to in America without the stereotypes, only a plea to look beyond.

“You’re around drug use, prostitution, pimps and there’s dealers, there’s crime and you’re constantly guarding yourself and trying to have an open heart and mind to communicate with people,” Caffee said.

It can be difficult to pull yourself away from that, he admitted. His answer, though, is always at the end of the journey.

That’s when “I come back to Gillette,” he said.

He struggles to accept the description of being an artist, although more people tell him that. It’s not why he does what he does, or continues to focus on improving his work each step of the way.

Caffee said he’s trying to improve his writing because he wants to finish a book of his journeys, one that sprang from selfishness but now gives a privileged view inside another world.

“I just think we can do better as a country,” he said, admitting his work has transformed his life as well.

“You know, there’s so much poverty and so much pain in the world, and as the street grunt, I wanted to shine a light on that,” he said.

“I don’t have the power to change much,” Caffee added. “I’m not an elected politician, a sociologist, a psychologist. But I can get people to look at it. And if they’ll look at it, maybe I can get them to think about it differently and more positively. … A lot of these (BS) stereotypes these people are plagued with, maybe they’ll see a different side of it.”

There is a side that those on the streets also know. In some ways, Caffee’s work is a gift for them and their broken families, a chance link.

“A lot of people want to be photographed, especially in these environments. I think some do because they know how far down they are and they know that, especially addicted to certain substances, they know they don’t have a lot of time left and they know they still have people out there. Maybe they don’t get along with them that well, but they still care,” Caffee said.

“Like that gentleman up there, he was a fireman and got hurt and got addicted to painkillers and his life spun out of control,” he said while looking at one of his images. “He’s been out there three years, but he still thought of and cared very deeply about his two boys, even though he didn’t really have a relationship with them anymore.

“I think he still cared deeply and he wanted to be photographed, to be remembered.”

That ultimately is what Caffee provides. He’s become proud of his effort to do so. It started with a selfish intent, to remind himself why he wanted to stay sober. But it’s grown into something more.

“It’s sort of a strange way to connect with my own pain and remember where I came from and what I dealt with myself,” he said. “We’re all different, but yet addiction is addiction and pain is pain. However it comes, it’s there.”

That’s what people see on the walls at the AVA center this month: the once forgotten and their stories, carved out by a Gillette resident who hopes to share their humanity and perhaps shape viewers in the same way his continuing journey changed him.