Brandon Thibodeaux’s eight-year journey in the Mississippi Delta, which resulted in the poetic images of his new book In That Land of Perfect Day, began with a personal quest. The Texas native, who is white, moved to small predominantly African American towns of the Delta where he didn’t know a soul — armed with a bicycle, a Mamiya C330, and a stack of 3×3 inch square prints.
Thibodeaux had just come out of an eight-year relationship that ended with a lost pregnancy. “I was heartbroken and lost,” he said. “I did what I’ve always done as a cancer survivor and curious photographer, I turned to strangers to find the answers.”
Thibodeaux’s first weekend in the Delta fell on Father’s Day, and he found himself in a dimly lit church near Alligator, Miss. “Thank the Lord we in the land of the livin’, not the land of the dyin’. Amen?” said the pastor, Freddie Green. Twenty-two strangers locked hands and bowed their heads in hymnal prayer, as the pastor’s son lifted a newborn toward the heavens – a symbolic offering. They sang songs like By and By, This Little Light of Mine, and Take My Hand Precious Lord that spoke of faith and perseverance. Thibodeaux left in tears.
The Mississippi Delta is often stereotyped as a hopeless place, decimated by the Civil War 150 years ago and looped into an endless cycle of poverty and neglect, where the culture of slavery and its aftermath can never be erased. Thibodeaux looks to historical moments of triumph, like the founding of Mound Bayou in 1887, an autonomous settlement for freed slaves to escape sharecropping, and the more recent development of cities like Atlanta, Nashville, New Orleans, Houston and Dallas into technology hubs of the health-care and energy industries to tell a diverse story of the region.
When he first started exploring the Delta, Thibodeaux wasn’t met with resistance, but more a sense of wonderment — what on Earth could he be doing here? As he rode his bicycle into Bruno’s Gas Station on Highway 61, people danced and drank in between the cars while soul blues blasted on the speakers.
“In the center of it all was a wild-eyed, wiry old man spinning like a cyclone atop the hot pavement,” Thibodeaux writes in his book. “’Look around. You don’t know a soul. What are you doing here?’ he said aggressively, shirtless and drenched. He was right. He introduced himself as ‘Dance Machine,’ but as the years went on I came to know him as James Watson Jr.”
The following day, Watson and Thibodeaux shared Sunday dinner, and he was introduced to Watson’s friends, the Coffey family. The Coffeys took him in and became his “surrogate family in the Delta.”
Interactions with real people cemented Thibodeaux’s relationship to the Delta. He still speaks to the Coffey family on a regular basis and spends holidays with them. He would ride around with 3×3 inch square prints in his back pocket, showing them to strangers who questioned him, and they would immediately recognize a cousin or uncle or church member. Thibodeaux would routinely go back to give people prints of their photos, and make time to take family portraits and pictures of newborn babies, creating a sense of collaboration in the project.
“My goal for this work is to allow the humanity of the region, the stories of triumph both small and large, to rise to the surface in hopes of fostering a better understanding of its racial identity,” he said.
He started this body of work at a hopeful time for the black community, Barack Obama had just been inaugurated as the first black U.S. president. People wanted hope and change. However, Thibodeaux said, it may have been dangerous to place such heavy expectations on one man who could only do so much. He believes that the racially motivated events of recent years – from Ferguson, Mo., to Baltimore to New York to Charlottesville – have awakened the country to the fact that civil rights abuses and racism aren’t confined to the South or the stereotypes we create.
“As long as there’s been race, there has been racism,” Thibodeaux said. “It didn’t start with us, and it certainly won’t end with us. But finding common ground through a shared human experience can help solve this pervasive and long-lasting cancer, and this is done one heart at a time.”
In That Land of Perfect Day, published by Red Hook Editions, is available for pre-sale here.
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