Brandon Thibodeaux is a Dallas-based photographer with a BS in photojournalism from the University of North Texas in Denton. Thibodeaux’s clients include Shell Oil International, Smithsonian magazine, the New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. He is the recipient of multiple awards, including first place for the Michael P. Smith Fund for Documentary Photography. His work is included in the collections of the High Museum of Art, Atlanta; the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans; and the Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego, among others. Thibodeaux is a member of the New York-based photography collective MJR.
Thibodeaux’s work in Southbound is drawn from a single black-and-white series entitled When Morning Comes, depicting the rural African American experience of the Mississippi Delta. The title is drawn from the chorus of the hymn, “We’ll Understand It Better By and By,” which alludes to strife overcome. Thibodeaux spent seven years living with and photographing families in small communities within an approximately sixty-square-mile area in the northern Mississippi Delta. The area includes Mound Bayou, which was founded as an independent black community in 1887 by a group of formerly enslaved people. Thibodeaux says of the region, “This is a land stigmatized by poverty beneath a long shadow of racism, a fact I do not wish to overlook but rather look between for evidence of the tender and yet unwavering human spirit that resides within its fabric. I feel it in the fecund fields where memories of the blood and sweat of generations now stir amidst the roar of combines. I hear it issued from lips in lessons of divinity. I see it in their eyes.”
The eyes of James “Dance Machine” Watson Jr., captured in an eponymous photograph (2009), stare directly into the camera in an intense visual standoff. His assertive posture suggests confrontation, but in fact “Dance Machine” gladly took a break from dancing at a parking lot party at Bruno’s gas station off of U.S. Highway 61 to pose for this portrait. In a masterful use of light, Dance Machine’s illuminated, grizzled hair and beard pull the viewer’s eye directly to his face. That same serene, celestial light is at play in Maw Maw’s New Braids (2009), wherein a young girl in Duncan, Mississippi, poses for a portrait of her freshly styled hair.
A scene familiar to those who have traversed the South’s rural roadways is captured in Harry Hope (2010). The titular figure is shown bundling collard greens outside of his home in Mound Bayou. Placing Hope’s face in the shadows, Thibodeaux captures the natural sunlight shining on the subject’s hands, and thus his livelihood. Independent farm stands have long dotted the Southern landscape, as each summer watermelons are piled beneath tents and greens slowly wilt in the unrelenting heat.
A boy performs acrobatics over a mattress in Backflip (2011). His suspended body floats in perpetuity, allowing the viewer time to scan the rest of the scene, where discarded tires and other debris dot the landscape. Thibodeaux made this photograph over a recess break during a makeshift summer-school program organized by the boy’s aunt in their backyard. Even among failing schools and junked property, hope and youthful play find a way.
When Morning Comes is a portrait of a place in which Thibodeaux’s long-form narrative fosters an intimacy with his subjects and invites viewers into a world that might otherwise be closed off to them. His project is a meditation on the Mississippi Delta’s long history of racial conflict amid glimmers of reconciliation.