Brandon Thibodeaux’s New Book Explores Family, Faith and Perseverance in the Mississippi Delta
November 24, 2017
“‘Mississippi 662’, Duncan, MS,” 2012. Brandon Thibodeaux’s new book explores faith and family in rural Mississippi.
In our current political climate, it’s challenging to look at a documentary photography project made by a white male about an African American community without considering the history of the camera as a tool of racism and exploitation. In reading Brandon Thibodeaux’s new book of black-and-white photographs, In that Land of Perfect Day, recently published by Red Hook Editions, we can’t help but ask how race influences the series and its success as a book-length work of art. If we as readers feel that it does succeed, why is that? Why does any photographer’s story about a community other than their own ring true?
In that Land of Perfect Day interweaves formal portraits and landscapes, and candid and metaphorical photographs Thibodeaux made over eight years in a 40-square-mile area of the Mississippi Delta, in towns with populations as small as 250 and as large as 10,000. We see Thibodeaux’s subjects pausing at work, socializing, praying, enjoying a visit to the ice cream truck. There is a young girl dressed as an angel, a child sleeping next to a kitten, a man standing on his porch, shirtless, flexing for the camera. There are images of religious and racial symbols—a headless snake and a framed picture of President Barack Obama on a living room side table. Thibodeaux’s texts touch on the history of the region and share personal stories of his experiences making the images.
Thibodeaux began the series in the summer after President Barack Obama took office. He felt, he says, that we were living “in the dawn of a new era for African Americans and I was curious about that,” but there were other, more personal reasons Thibodeaux made his way from Dallas, where he lives and works as a photojournalist, to rural Mississippi, a region known for blues music and Civil Rights activism. He was at the end of a long-term relationship. He says, “I needed to focus my mind on something else.” He had long been drawn to rural communities, in which “family is generally prominent in people’s lives as well as religion,” he explains. That fascination dated back to time he spent in rural Mexico after he graduated college with a degree in international development. It’s also linked to his upbringing in a large, Catholic family and the fact that, as a teenager, Thibodeaux survived lymphoma, an experience that “amplified [the importance of] faith in my life,” he says.
His choice to travel by bicycle “made it much easier to meet people because I could travel faster than walking but I didn’t look like an encyclopedia salesman,” he says. People were also curious about his “clunky Mamiya c330 twin lens the size of my head.”
One of the first people Thibodeaux met was a man named Marvin Young, who offered a sort of blessing on the photographer’s journey by quoting a Bible verse—Ephesians 6:16: “Take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.” Thibodeaux took courage from the verse, he writes in the book, which emboldened him to ride his bike up to a party in a gas station parking lot down the road in Alligator, Mississippi. There, a man named James Watson, Jr. said to him, “Boy, you’ve either got balls the size of your head or you’re just fucking ignorant.” Watson agreed to meet Thibodeaux the next day, and introduced him to a prominent family, the Coffeys, who “adopted” him and came to “serve as the nucleus of all the relationships I now have in the Delta,” Thibodeaux says. Their family name opened doors, and Thibodeaux’s “intense connection” with the family kept him returning to the Delta. He believes the Coffeys and others welcomed him in because, “I acted like a person and not a photographer…. People are willing to share as much as you are. I am pretty generous with revealing personal tidbits about my life,” Thibodeaux explains.
The first summer he was there, someone suggested Thibodeaux visit Mound Bayou, a community founded in 1887 by Isaiah T. Montgomery. A freed slave, Montgomery envisioned an “autonomous settlement for freedmen seeking shelter from the less stigmatized version of slavery known as sharecropping that began to take hold as the new South emerged” after the Civil War, Thibodeaux writes in the book. The history appealed to the photojournalist in him. “There’s your editorial pitch,” he thought, and he started to focus on Mound Bayou. That photojournalistic thinking, however, proved limiting. “I was thinking in terms of an assignment and I was really struggling in creating work because I was so narrowly focused on this one storyline,” he recalls.
“As time went on I let myself breathe and began broadening out the scope of the project,” he adds, to incorporate images from other towns that focused on “these broader themes of faith and perseverance.”
After college he had pursued a photojournalism degree, while at the same time studying with fine-art photographer Keith Carter, who taught him to use “more lyrical, suggestive imagery.” As he worked on his project, he drew on the influences of “this lineage of regional photographers” that includes Carter as well as O. Rufus Lovett and Debbie Fleming Caffery. “These were the people that I’d looked up to in my early photography years, looking at how people translate the local landscape,” he says.
In 2010, he took 3×3 prints from the project to Review Santa Fe to identify “pockets of interest.” Photo editors Elisabeth Biondi and Stacey Clarkson James were particularly helpful. “Seeing how they arranged the images, I began to see more of a chorus instead of a solo with the images, and see how they played off one another.” Over time, images began to “naturally fit together,” and designer Teun van der Heijden helped Thibodeaux with the final edit.
“Between the start of the project and the creation of the book, the political and social climate had changed dramatically.” Thibodeaux felt that he needed to include text. “While I didn’t want to handhold the viewer, I thought it was really important that these anecdotes and these excerpts were shared for context,” he explains. “It adds to that authenticity of the message to say, ‘Here’s what I’ve learned.’”
In that Land of Perfect Day tells “stories about black achievement, of people going against the grain and accomplishing their goal, like the founders of Mound Bayou,” Thibodeaux says. It also celebrates “the achievement of a normal man just making it through the week and holding on to his family and his faith, and I think those are things that are common to us all.”
There are a number of reasons Thibodeaux, an outsider, was able to tell these stories, but the permission of his subjects is probably most important. “While I was aware of the skin difference, I was never raised to think of people as the other,” Thibodeaux says. “And I think that comes with the background of being a newspaper photographer—you find common ground with anybody. Looking back, am I the perfect narrator for this tale? Who’s to say. The only reason that I was able to tell what I’m telling is people have allowed me to, right?”
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