Brandon Thibodeaux (b.1981) is a photographer based in Dallas, Texas who creates portraits in the documentary tradition. In addition to his assignment work and creative commissions, he explores life in the American south. He is a member of the photography collective MJR, based in New York City.
PetaPixel: Tell us about how you came into photography, and when did you realize it was something you wanted to pursue as a profession?
Brandon Thibodeaux: I discovered photography in college after spending my teenage years battling cancer. I was fumbling in school then. I knew I wanted to live and learn and explore my the world but I just couldn’t find my voice.
Photography introduced me to all walks of life and allowed me to interpret my experiences in a tangible way. With time the relationship between my curiosities about life and this chosen medium grew stronger and I eventually graduated with a degree in photojournalism and international development.
I’d say photography as a career had a snowball effect. I had an internship at the Dallas Morning News in college and I eventually began to freelance for them. As time went on I’d acquire new clients. My editorial assignments would introduce me to local corporate clients and eventually, after a few trips up to New York, the whole thing fortunately fell into place.
PP: Who were your influences during your education? Who helped to shape your attitudes and philosophies as a photographer?
BT: I fell between two camps: the fine art world of Keith Carter and the journalism world of Mona Reeder, a staff photographer at the Dallas Morning News who taught a photo story class at the University of North Texas.
Looking back, both were complimentary to one another. Keith showed me beauty could be found in the ordinary. Mona nurtured that same sense of discovery and taught me how to edit and shape my narratives; she’d have me buying Salgado books while reading Carlos Castaneda.
PP: Your series “When Morning Comes,” according to your statement, is a “…reflection of life in the Mississippi Delta.” What led you to photographing in the Deep South, as opposed to anyplace else in the country? What were you looking for there?
BT: I first traveled to the Delta while on my way home across country. I had a casual understanding of the place and its legacy but no other real connection. It was shortly after President Obama’s first inauguration and I was curious about where the Delta was at that time. I was also coming out of a long-term relationship and a large part of me was looking for a place where I could rebuild myself and photograph along the way.
I was naturally drawn to a place that seemed similar to regions I’d worked in the past, like the rural villages of northern Mexico. This was sort of an ah-ha moment. When I was a young student studying International Developing I’d had it in my mind that the only place to find compelling stories was abroad. When I began working in the Mississippi Delta I realized that one doesn’t need to look any further than their own backyard to find something beautiful or compelling. I realized that if you can’t see the world in your own backyard then the world beyond its gate won’t hold much for you either.
I think you can take any rural place in the world and find great similarities in their societal make up. You’ll find that there are two types of people: landowners and land workers. You’ll find a strong belief in God as a source of hope and strength, and an intense reliance upon the family unit to survive.
So, why the Delta? It was the right time and place and I was very fortunate to find such gracious hosts. This could have easily turned into a bike ride around the Delta with a few images and that’s that, but the relationships that were built serendipitously on that first trip proved to be more than brief encounters. And it’s these relationships that keep me going back.
PP: To again reference your statement for this project, you mention the “rural black experience.” What concepts/ideas have you found are central to that experience?
BT: When I was preparing for lectures earlier last week I remembered a quote I’d heard from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was speaking to his congregation in Atlanta about having faith and standing up for what is right. He spoke of civil disobedience in reference to the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego as they stood up against King Nebakanezer and refused to bow to his golden idol. They chose the fiery furnace instead of bowing down and found God standing beside them.
With this in mind Dr. King said:
Somewhere along the way you should discover something that’s so dear, so precious to you, that is so eternally worthful, that you will never give it up. You ought to discover some principle. You ought to have some great faith that grips you so much that you will never give it up. Somehow you go on and say, I know that the God that I worship is able to delivery me, but if not, I’m going on anyhow, I’m going to stand up for it anyway!
I was pouring over my memories of the Delta and I began to see examples of this all about me. I saw the story of Isaiah T. Montgomery and the founding of Mound Bayou, Mississippi’s oldest completely African-American town. For 25 years they achieved the American Dream, built upon self-reliance and determination.
I recalled the story of settling the town: “Why stagger at the difficulties that confront you,” proclaimed its founder, Isaiah T. Montgomery, as he strove to ignite his men in their first year. “Have you not for centuries braved the miasma and hewn down forests at the command of your master? Can you not do it for yourselves and your children unto successive generations, that they may worship and develop under their own vine and fig tree?”
Still I turned to see other examples of this determination. I saw it in the simpler stories of family life, single mothers fighting for their children and fathers carrying the weight of the household working on lands that they do not own. I heard it in their churches like the one I first attended in 2009 behind Alligator, MS, where we sang This Little Light of Mine, By and By, and Take My Hand Precious Lord. These are songs that speak the same message about faith and perseverance.
PP: As with many documentary projects, the key factor in creating a successful project is to gain the trust of the subjects. Was it difficult for you, as an outsider, to earn the trust that allowed access into the homes and lives of those you photographed?
BT: I am very fortunate in this respect. Of course I was insecure and nervous about roaming around without knowing anyone but things fell into place naturally through the folks I met. One encounter would lead to another and so on until I developed a network of relationships.
For instance, I met James “Dance Machine” Watson Jr. at Bruno’s gas station alongside HWY 61 in Alligator, MS. Knowing what I know now I would have never stepped foot in the place. It was my first full day in the Delta and I had found myself in the middle of a parking lot party complete with a DJ spinning Al Green and Bobby Rush. The air was hot, the sun was ripe and we were all sweaty and dancing. I shot three frames of James that evening. He was the wildest guy in the bunch. Despite his initial aggression I ended up finding myself having coffee with him the following day after church.
The house he invited me over to was the Coffey residence which turned out to be my foster family in the area over the next five years. Through their house I’d meet relatives or friends, I’d bring back prints of them and their families and they would introduce me to other towns and villages until eventually my whole network of relations grew to span some 15-20 square miles of friendly households.
I guess the point of me saying all of this is that you never know where and when a door will open. It just so happened the wildest, most untamed guy in the bunch held the key to the tenderest part of the Delta I know.
The truth of it all is, throwing the camera and all that mess aside, just being a sincere person opens so many doors. People respond to it. There’s guys I thought didn’t care much about me all these years, we never said much to one another. I make one passing comment about being engaged over beers one night and suddenly they’re telling me how much they miss their own wives, how they hated being bullheaded when they were young and losing their families, they’d offer me their sincerest pieces of advice on how to avoid that remorse in my own marriage. That to me is worth all the fish in the sea.
PP: Your compositions are very clean, and the moments you depict, to me, ring in particular tones of “Americana.” Overall, there’s a kind of romance and idealism I see in your work. How much of this romance is reflective of those you photographed, and how much is of your own view of the world?
BT: When folks think of the Delta they think of cotton fields, blues, race and struggle. We should not forget those things. But we also cannot allow the legacy of those things to overshadow the lives of those living there today.
Of course you must be careful in romanticizing the place. For every good and beautiful story I have of the Delta I have an equally opposite dark and sordid one. But folks anticipate the telling of these sorts of things. There’s already a lengthy photographic legacy of showing the impoverishment of the area. I’d rather hint at those things symbolically and try to let the humanity rise to the forefront.
Can this project change the economic situation? Can it spur new industries to move in and bring people jobs? Of course not, not by itself. Can it bridge the racial divide? Certainly not, not by itself. But it can add to the dialogue about the Delta and its people. It can help broaden the understanding of the place. There must be a balance visually between the light and dark, but I don’t think visually reinforcing the negative image of the region accomplishes anything that isn’t already known.
PP: What other documentary photographers, past or present, do you look to for inspiration?
BT: My biggest one recently is the late Wayne Miller whom served as president of Magnum from 1962 to 1966. He won two Guggenheims for his work documenting the African-American communities of Chicago’s South Side in the years following WWII. He used that work to “introduce man to man”, to show the commonality of us all. Something he continued to do in his assisting Steichen with the Family of Man exhibition years later. I’ve found a lot of inspiration in that message given my own subject matter with When Morning Comes.
PP: Finally, what projects, exhibitions, or other activities are coming up for you over the next year?
BT: I’m in the middle of having two solo shows up right now in Richmond, VA, at Candela Books+ Gallery and at the Pictura Gallery in Bloomington, IN. I’m also pleased to have the opportunity to speak on a panel at Columbus State University about what it is like to photograph in the South today. It is part of a series of workshops, talks and a curated exhibition from the Do Good Funds’ collection of classic and contemporary southern photography.
After that I’ll be looking forward to resuming work in the Delta and the upcoming show of this work at the Griffin Museum for Photography next year.