One Photographer Documents the Lives of Schoolchildren in the Caribbean

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CoverTaken from Uniform by Kacey Jeffers

“I wanted to photograph local kids at school in their uniform so I could merge elements of fashion, portraiture and reportage,” says Kacey Jeffers of his new book, Uniform

At the end of 2018, model-turned-photographer Kacey Jeffers returned to his home on the island of Nevis in the Caribbean, after his visa expired. Frustrated by the New York grind, he decided to take some time to recalibrate and recharge his creative energy by immersing himself in a new project: a series of portraits of schoolchildren, brought together in his new book, Uniform.

“My camera was my tool to build something,” Jeffers says. “Portraiture is my foundation as a photographer, and I wanted to photograph local kids at school in their uniform so I could merge elements of fashion, portraiture and reportage. Clothes are never the first thing I look at; I’m more interested in the person but I wanted to show how what that person is wearing shapes their character. For me, fashion has a purpose.”

On Nevis – which is the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton, fourth President of America who has recently been resurrected in the Broadway musical, Hamilton – education and the promise it brings is highly esteemed. “When I started to think about the project, I had to think about what it meant to me and look at my memories,” Jeffers says.

Every Sunday, from preschool until fourth grade, Jeffers’ mother would steam, iron, and starch his uniform – three yellow cotton shirts and two khaki pants – to perfection. Each morning, she would caution, “Go to school and learn, and bring this uniform back home just how you left with it.” Jeffers did just that, recognising that learning to respect himself in this way was an integral part of his education.

When it came to the time for him to make these portraits, Jeffers sought out students who might not have the same advantages as those at the top of the class or those regarded as traditionally beautiful. Instead, he wanted to photograph the shy and the rambunctious alike, the students who might otherwise slip through the cracks and present them as individuals worthy of respect and regard in their own right.

Growing up in Nevis, which only gained its independence from the UK in 1983, among a population of 12,000 citizens predominantly of African descent, Jeffers had not thought about being seen as “other” until he moved to New York. With the understanding of what W.E.B. DuBois deemed double consciousness, Jeffers approaches his work from the understanding that race is just one part of the story being told.

“When I photograph black people, it has to come from something deep and authentic,” he says. “I am looking within for intimacy, presence, and a connection to something other than the physical to capture the essence of that person.”

As a self-taught photographer, Jeffers works from instinct, knowing exactly the mood for the work then collaborating with his subjects to allow it to unfold naturally. While he made photographs in the island’s 14 schools, he wanted to make sure the locations did not overwhelm the shot with narrative information that would frame his subjects as mere children. Jeffers understood, like race, they were more than just their age – the whole being greater than the sum its parts.

“This is how I want to shoot fashion,” Jeffers says. “Something merges my culture with the world, where it has a purpose and represents something to people in my community. I see fashion everywhere.”

Uniform by Kacey Jeffers is out now.