“Son, I ain’t trying to be some asshole but the sun is setting and you in a place you don’t belong. Go on and take my picture but after that I suggest you run on home”.
Those were the first words spoken to Brandon Thibodeaux in the Mississippi Delta. He made the picture and left. Then returned the next morning and stayed for eight years.
Who belongs where is much discussed in the photography world these days. And rightly so, there are many egregious examples of carpetbagging to be seen. As well, there is the sticky question of who gets (is allowed) to represent another. The history of photography can be neatly placed upon the history of colonialism, this must be acknowledged.
I know from personal experience the responses you can get when you photograph a society other than your own. You are exploiting, people will tell you, you are denigrating or you are glamorizing or glossing over, you don’t have the proper history, you don’t know, you don’t belong. Some believe that those you are interacting with have no agency and no understanding of the dynamic at work. (Which can be, but is not necessarily, the case.)
There’s another thing I know, and that’s that I don’t believe anyone who holds fundamental/categorical positions, who thinks there is only one way to look at this world we live in. I mean, I believe and accept that that’s how they think, I just don’t believe what they think.
For me, the job of photography and of photographers is to present us with images that cause us to question. That means we must look at, think about, be affected by and, yes, question, each body of work on its merits, on its intent and the transparency of the process applied by the photographer (which, if you ask me, is almost always apparent if you look at the photographs).
With this in mind I talked with Brandon about the time he spent in the Mississippi Delta, which resulted in his book In That Land of Perfect Day.
What was the genesis of the project that became In That Land of Perfect Day?
I set off riding my bicycle across the northern Mississippi Delta back in June 2009. Without having much of a plan, I set out to explore the region letting one serendipitous encounter lead me to the next. My first weekend there I met James “Dance Machine” Watson Jr. at a parking lot party in the front of Alligator. He invited me over for Sunday lunch the following day. That invitation is how I met the Coffey family – the home where James was staying – and the Coffey’s from that point became my surrogate family in the region.
They’re a large family with lots of boys, big boys, the kind you don’t mess with, so every one in the area has a lot of respect for them. I feel lucky that they were the first bunch of folks that I met in the Delta because my relationship with them vouched for me everywhere I went in the surrounding towns. It was like I suddenly had an extended family with lots of brothers and uncles. I like to say that I found the key to the most tender part of the Delta in the pocket of the wildest man in town. I owe every bit of this project to the generosity of a man who invited me over for lunch not realizing we’d both be in each other’s lives for the next 8 years.
Like you, I’ve spent some time in the Delta, going to small towns, making contact, listening, telling stories, photographing. I have always been struck by the grace of the folks who live there. It seems so different from the people I meet here every day (that’d be: Canadians). The people I met there really attracted me but I always knew I was an interloper (for lack of a better word). How do you reconcile your work in the Delta with the fact that you, as we say in Canada, come from away?
This is definitely the crux of documenting any one other than yourself or outside of your own family, right? It’s something I’ve battled with since the beginning of the project, this notion of being able to come and go as I please. It was most striking to me at the onset of the work when I was staying at a local hotel in Clarksdale. I’d spend all day with families in the small Delta towns south of there but when the sun had fallen and the pictures were taken I’d head back for a beer in the local bar and to my hotel room with some sort of unsettling feeling. With this in mind I made sure that we spoke about my work, my reasons behind it, and what my aspirations were for it, folks understand that this is what I do for a living and encourage me to do it. I never tried to hide something or have an ulterior motive beyond what was covered in conversation. That transparency, that pure honesty put my mind at ease with photographing and bypassing the hotel and living with the folks I photograph alleviated the issue in mind of “coming and going” which in turn spawned a richer and deeper relationship in the end.
In terms of race, while I was aware of the skin difference, I was never raised to think of people as the other, and I think that value was reinforced with my background of being a newspaper photographer—you find common ground with anybody. You build a relationship with anyone based on commonalities not differences, so race was never the first conversation we’d have. We’d speak about love, or loss, or companionship, and the race conversation would come down the road in an almost passing way.
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. I’ve come across a few folks over time that question the validity of my authorship on the subject given my ethnicity but in doing so I can’t help but question what those people’s skepticism is really saying about the folks I photograph. Are these skeptics saying that because of their race or their economic status the people I photograph are incapable of deciding for themselves who they can confide in, who they can trust, or with whom they can share their world? I began this adventure not so much as a photographer on a mission but as a man who simply had more questions than answers about life and fortunately the folks I’ve grown close to in the Delta have had a whole lot to say.
I love that answer, Brandon. Maybe that’s because it so closely echoes my own philosophy, approach and reasoning. I want to follow up just a little bit, because, as you say, this question is at the crux of much documentary photography. I also want to be aware (beware) of just nodding my head in an echo chamber.
Many of my projects take me into contact with people who come from a different background. Like you, I have conversations with them, explain what I think I’m doing, we trade stories and experiences. In the end I want to photograph them and have to admit that, despite all the niceties that have preceded, I will never be able to understand their fact and, in the end the power (for lack of a better word) rests mostly with me.
Even so, the almost unanimous response from the people I photograph is that they are happy someone is interested enough to go out of their way to listen, to work with them, to bring some aspect of their lives forward, to share. So it seems to me that there can be a disconnect between the theories of representation and the experiences of some people on the ground who are actually curious about the “news” that exists outside their immediate sphere. (And I say “some” people because intent and transparency is something many photographers either don’t think too much about, or don’t care enough about to practice.)
Can you tell me what you think about this disconnect between theory and practise?
Gosh, where do I begin with this. This is the meat of it all, right? This could turn into a lengthy reply, sorry in advance Tony.
Well, I gave up on having a Jesus Complex with photography long ago. I recognize that this work can only do so much in explaining the Delta and it’s people. I, like some of my contemporaries, entered into photography with this grand notion of changing the world through my lens. I do believe images hold the power to change lives but the true power to change things (if in fact they need changing) lies within people. Actually, the very idea of going somewhere and “changing” a situation is really another pitfall in the theory versus practice relationship, for it implies that I know better. The fact is that this project will never bring economic diversity to the Delta – thereby bringing more jobs, it will never change the state of Mississippi’s education system, and it won’t erase the legacy of racism. What it can do is present another platform for discussion (just as it’s doing now between us) that acknowledges the history and lives of folks living there today, and it can introduce a certain way of life to someone that may never have the opportunity to experience it themselves. I got an email from a woman who recently bought my book that said it moved her to research a local church in the Delta and make a donation. That’s great that it has the power to inspire people to act in a certain way. I like that.
I just received a copy of Aperture’s Vision & Justice issue that is guest curated by Sarah Lewis and focused on the portrayal of Black America in photography. When I read your reply I was reminded of Mrs. Lewis’ quote in the issue’s foreword, “Art is often the way to cross the gulf that separates us…How we remain connected depends on the function of pictures – increasingly the way that we process worlds unlike our own.” That’s what this project is about, a yearning to understand. To cross a bridge. To not let others tell me how or what I should think but to go out and seek those truths for myself. Let me pause for a second to say that I‘m not sure I ever wanted to confront racism directly, so much as I wanted to confront an understanding of racial and regional identity, and in that, maybe I am confronting racism to some degree. In my opinion the best tools we have against racism are knowledge and empathy, which in turn foster the very understanding I sought. I picked up a Cornell West quote somewhere along this journey that speaks about empathy, he said, “Empathy is not simply a matter of trying to imagine what others are going through, but having the courage to do something about it. In a way, empathy is predicated upon hope.”
Thus, in terms of being a white man in a black community, I found it to be my duty to listen, to educate myself, to ask questions and to collaborate in a way that brings forth the attributes that I found in these communities, that I heard in their churches, and saw in their lives. That is my stand, to take it upon myself to learn, in the hopes of being a part of something larger than myself.
I don’t know how I feel about your notion of never being able to fully understand their “fact”. I think that’s the inherent trouble, this notion that no matter how hard you try, no matter how much effort you put into learning about someone else, you’ll never get it. If that’s the case, then why try? Why waste your time, your resources, and ultimately your life, striving to find something that you feel you have no hope of ever finding? By this logic, the only people I’m left qualified to photograph or write about are lower middle class white males who reside in a specific locale. That’s a bit short sighted, both limiting and discrediting generations of stories already told and those yet to come.
And where would that leave us as a species? In some tribalistic quarantine? This only serves to widen the gap of misunderstanding and reinforce the notion of the “other” to keep the psyche of these “theorists” comfortable. When my book came out I had one Instagram critic accuse me of being some faux racial ally for my own personal gain and profit. For one, if this person knew anything, they’d know that there’s no profit in photobook making, and two, if they’d taken the time to read anything I’ve said I’d hope they’d seen some genuine attempt to learn on my part. Some people want to “theorize” and complain for the sake of feeling like their voice is being heard or that they’re contributing to the dialogue in some way, but I don’t see any real solution in their notion.
This unease about authorship both belittles the intelligence of one’s subjects and subjugates the photographer beneath some fearful reign of creative terror, stymieing any hope of understanding at the individual level.
I agree with most of what you say about understanding. I think it might be semantics that separates us so I will push on because these ideas are so important to me. I want to get this straight.
The bits I agree with are those where you talk about the possibility of learning about someone else and how not believing there can be growth and understanding (things that are central to the reasons I photograph these days) leads to tribalistic quarantine. I agree that making an effort to learn is a good human trait (but one that many photographers don’t seem to embrace too much, preferring, instead to just plug the subject into their preordained system).
So I agree with almost everything you say. But what I’m not so sure about is our capability to really, really, know a culture that originates outside ours, that has a different historical fact. Perhaps we are disagreeing over a matter of degree.
What do you think?
Hum. I get what you are saying, and I thought that’s what you meant the first time around. Can I truly ever experience the world as someone else does? Short of climbing into their own body and making judgements based off of their own memories, fundamentally, no, my perception of reality will always be tinted by a slightly different hue. But I might be diverging and speaking more about interpretation than comprehension. I don’t know if I have an expanded answer for this one. I believe all one can do is inform themselves by seeking honest answers. The closest we’ll ever come to understanding someone else is solely based upon how much that person wants to be understood.
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