A Town Called Alligator: Brandon Thibodeaux

Port speaks to photographer Brandon Thibodeaux about his book In That Land of Perfect Day, which traces the lives of ordinary people in the Mississippi Delta and reflects on themes of faith, family, pride and perseverance 

Left: Mississippi 662, Duncan, MS, 2012; Right: Sno Balls & Ice Cream, Duncan, 2015

In June 2009, five months after the inauguration of President Obama, Texan photographer Brandon Thibodeaux arrived in a town called Alligator, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, broken and confused. His relationship of eight years had just ended following a lost pregnancy, work was unsatisfying and he found himself drifting. “I didn’t feel as though I was producing something that was me,” he tells me early one morning on the phone from his home in Dallas. “So I began to sort out what inspires me, what I could look for as a personal project.”

With an academic background in international development, Thibodeaux had spent several years photographing rural communities in Mexico. Meaningful connections with people had been hindered by Thibodeaux’s poor Spanish – “I used a lot of hand gestures” – but it gave him the idea to immerse himself a similar project closer to home. So, with the Mississippi Delta virtually in his back yard – a region where he understood the social dynamics and, crucially, where he could communicate with the people – Thibodeaux embarked upon a project documenting the people of the area which would last for the next eight years“That first weekend in the Delta was marked by a Father’s Day sermon at the church in Alligator. It felt like one of those serendipitous moments where you go, ‘I’m in the right place, this is where I need to be.’” 

Left: Nut and His Buck, Alligator, MS, 2012; Right: President Obama, Mound Bayou, MS, 2012

Published earlier this month by Red Hook Editions, In That Land of Perfect Day – the first monograph to result from Thibodeaux’s study – presents a snapshot of everyday life in the Mississippi Delta. Depicting towns like Alligator, Mound Bayou and Bobo, it tells the story of rural black American communities in the Obama era, as well as documenting how Thibodeaux’s relationship with the various communities developed as he spent more time in the Delta.

I ask how people first reacted when he showed up in town, asking to take their picture. “With a mixture of scepticism and wonder,” he tells me. Sometimes exchanges with people were hopeful and uplifting, and at others “the opposite would happen, somebody would say ‘What are you doing here? Look around, you’re the only little white kid with big glasses, you don’t know a soul.’”

Left: Mini, Shelby, MS, 2016; Right: Three Cousins, Alligator, MS, 2014

In an attempt to de-escalate these situations, Thibodeaux began to keep prints of his photographs in his back pocket, that he would pass around when he met people. “They’d go through them, and often at some point they say ‘Where’d you meet my uncle?’ or ‘That’s my cousin with his first deer, you took that picture? It’s on his wall at home.’”

In such small communities, word of Thibodeaux soon got out and he found himself invited along to family gatherings and special events to take photographs. “It’s a wonderful thing to walk into someone’s bedroom and see your photograph hanging above their bed, or neatly packaged in a draw in their closet so cigarette smoke doesn’t damage them,” he says.

Though creatively validated and emotionally moved by these encounters, Thibodeaux is careful not to romanticise, reminding me that “for every wonderful story I have about the Delta, I have an equally dark and distorted one.” His photographs do, however, represent a conscious departure from preconceived, often media-driven, ideas about the region. Men are seen posing with stuffed deer heads, but also proudly with their small babies. “If you ask an American, ‘What is the Delta?’, they think of cotton fields and blues music,” explains Thibodeaux. “That shouldn’t be forgotten, but in this case I felt that the experience of people living there today shouldn’t be overlooked either. In a sense, this is a testament to them.”

Left: Obama Time, Memphis, TN, 2012; Right: Alex and A’Miracle, Duncan, MS, 2009

In order to forge a genuine connection with their subject, the photographer will highlight the things they have in common. I ask Thibodeaux about the challenges of this approach in the American South where racial tensions, especially in recent years, have been volatile. “You try to establish a relationship you can build a foundation on, so I didn’t immediately spotlight the obvious difference”, Thibodeaux says. “Race was never the first topic of conversation.” Despite their differences, they would bond over commonalities such as faith or relationships, “like any human would.”

“I can’t say that I wanted to confront racism directly in this project, or necessarily race, but what I wanted to confront was our understandings of racial and regional identity”, Thibodeaux continues. “So with that maybe I am confronting racism, to some degree, but I’ve always felt that the best tools we have against racism are knowledge and empathy – which in turn foster understanding.”

Left: Switch for My Cousin, Duncan, MS, 2009; Right: Cat Nap, Duncan, MS, 2012

The inauguration of President Obama in 2009 presented mixed feelings. Thibodeaux was driving around the Delta with a young man about his age, when he asked him directly,“What do you think about having a black President?” The response was telling. “It does not make a difference in my life, what the colour of this man’s skin is.” On another occasion, whilst taking a portrait of the oldest man in the community, Thibodeaux saw a portrait of Barack Obama resting on his side table. “It was a quiet image, but it speaks so much about the time in which we were living,” Thibodeaux said. “His presidency was both one of hope and one of scepticism.”

During Thibodeaux’s last visit to the Delta, Donald Trump’s leadership campaign was in full swing. A rumour had been circulating throughout town that, if Trump were to be elected, he would make them all slaves again. “No matter how unlikely or improbable this idea – what does it say about the vulnerability of the mind?” Thibodeaux says thoughtfully. When I ask about the responsibility of photography in the era of Trump, he tells me that “given the events of the time, it’s a very dangerous thing the media does, in which it creates this very simple narrative of us against them. That in itself sows seeds of hate and retribution, or overlooks the fact that the world is far more complicated than that.”

Left: Choo Choo and His Bible, Alligator, MS, 2012; Right: Backflip, Duncan, MS, 2011

In That Land of Perfect Day intelligently conveys the multiple shades of this ambivalence, and possesses the quiet, self-contained dignity of a genuine connection wrought between photographer and subject. This mutual respect is indicated in how often Thibodeaux shoots his subjects looking directly into the camera: demanding to be seen, to be reckoned with; a portrait of a region caught between optimism and scepticism.


In That Land of Perfect Day is available from Red Hook Editions, Brooklyn

Lifting the Lid on Trump

Author and staff writer at The New Yorker, Mark Singer, considers the reality of national life and death under President Trump

Illustration – Louise Pomeroy
Illustration – Louise Pomeroy

To try to understand how and why one of America’s two major political parties managed to nominate a presidential candidate so self-absorbed, defiantly ignorant, intellectually vapid, impulsively combative, compulsively mendacious and recklessly erratic as to jeopardise the United States’ strategic international alliances, national security and standing as a rational guardian of the world order, begin with the inanity of our electoral protocols. Our national anthem brightly declares us “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Politically, though, we are the land of the easily amused and the home of the readily fooled.

The 2016 campaign got underway the afternoon of January 20, 2013. Earlier that day, President Barack Obama had taken the oath of office marking the inauguration of his second – and final – term. Officially, this meant four more years to command the armed forces, steer the world’s largest national economy through its recovery from the most dire crisis since the Great Depression, and fulfil the duties and responsibilities designated by the Constitution. The Republican Party leadership, however, was having none of it. Throughout Obama’s first term, the opposition had embraced a content-free agenda of resolute obstructionism, a strategy still in effect. Obama would be the lamest of lame ducks. Other than the ceremonial formalities, they vowed, his presidency was kaput. In this regard, they were enabled by a political punditocracy that had already turned its attention to the next election. Focus conscientiously upon the arduous work of governance? For the possibility of transcending partisan differences for the common good? For the redress of stark social and economic inequalities? Please! Only the horse race, it seemed, mattered.

When, in June 2015, Donald Trump formally declared his candidacy, he had already spent four decades clamouring for public attention. New Yorkers knew him as a rough-edged rich kid from the outer boroughs – son of a developer who amassed a fortune building rental housing in middle-class Queens – who had crossed the river into Manhattan and ingeniously succeeded, as no one previously had dared, at branding real estate. Depending upon one’s perspective, Donald was either a self-parodying parvenu or an aspirational figure. He developed residential high-rises plastered with the ‘TRUMP’ moniker, then diversified in Atlantic City, where he built casino hotels slathered with blinding ornamentation, the goal being to titillate suckers with the fantasy that a Trump-like life was a lifelike life – to distract from the fact that he had lured them inside to pick their pockets. The odds favouring the house notwithstanding, the casinos would in time fail, a saga of serial bankruptcies (six!) that would correlate with Trump’s nastiest habits, his cruel pleasure in stiffing creditors and his hair-trigger litigiousness.

His personal life was no tidier. During the first of his three marriages, he had committed blatant adultery (along the way snookering the New York Post, a tabloid, into publishing a headline with a putative quote from his mistress and future second-ex-wife: “BEST SEX I’VE EVER HAD”). Equally promiscuous had been the bankers credulous enough to lend Trump billions. No longer creditworthy, he possessed only one remaining exploitable resource – his brand. Going forward, moneyed partners would assume all the risks and, in exchange for having his name on their buildings, Trump would earn back-end equity when a project succeeded. Such details were hidden from a public for whom the Trump illusion survived. For more than a decade preceding his candidacy, Trump’s day job had been reality television star. No longer – and perhaps not ever – an actual billionaire, he now impersonated one on TV. Trump’s role on ‘The Apprentice’ and ‘The Celebrity Apprentice’ constituted his political capital, an asset he would leverage to seduce millions of voters suspended in their own collective fog of make-believe. 

America’s first-ever reality TV presidential campaign began infamously, of course, with Trump’s slander of Mexicans as rapists and drug smugglers. Islamophobia followed. The bigotry extended his four-year run as the nation’s birther-in-chief, promoter of the racist lie that Obama had been born not in Hawaii but in Kenya, rendering his presidency illegitimate. Birtherism – stirred with economic populism, fear and nativism – begat Trumpism, a brew concocted by a narcissist, drunk on his metamorphosis into demagogue. 

Eventually, 16 other horses joined the race, among them senators, governors, former senators and governors, one in-way-over-his-head retired neurosurgeon, and one erstwhile corporate chief executive. The latter two, in particular, hoped to trade upon their outsider status with an electorate disgusted by the political status quo and especially by Washington. Any of the contenders seemed as likely to prevail as Trump, whose candidacy for far too long was treated by the press, the public and the Republican establishment as a relatively harmless novelty. Trump win the nomination? Get outa here. The general election? – beyond ludicrous. 

Cable news doted upon Trump because, regardless of one’s politics, he provided entertainment, which meant bigger ratings, which meant bigger revenue. The digital and print media, while perhaps less cynical, knew that Trump delivered good copy. Still, subject him to labour-intensive investigation? We’re busy.

By the time the first primary votes were cast, in early February, his candidacy was seven-and-a-half months old. The monster had long since risen from the laboratory table and run amok. There had been 13 debates and ‘candidate forums’, and Trump had dominated virtually all of them – bullying, interrupting, taunting and lying about his opponents. One by one, short of votes, short of money, they gave up. Each retreat seemed inevitable and each seemed to embolden him. When challenged, he attacked the moderators. During campaign rallies, he incited his supporters to spew venom at the hapless journalists assigned to cover him.

Throughout, Trump’s sordid history – racial discrimination against would-be tenants; dealings with organised crime; employment of undocumented immigrants; deeply ingrained misogyny; unconscionable fleecing of desperate enrollees in his fraudulent get-rich-quick real-estate seminars; refusal to pay contractors whose businesses then failed – hid in plain sight, accessible with a few keystrokes, thanks to years of exertions by superb journalists (Wayne Barrett, David Cay Johnston, Timothy O’Brien, Tom Robbins et al.).

With laudable exceptions – Politifact.com (a project of the Tampa Bay Times), Fact Checker (ditto, Washington Post), Factcheck.org (Annenberg Public Policy Center) – not until Trump had clinched the nomination did most news organisations subject him to the scrutiny they could have and should have from the get-go.

By the time of the first debate (of three) with Hillary Clinton, the election was six weeks away and the race was perilously close. Arrogant as ever, Trump showed up unprepared. Clinton did decidedly the opposite. Not long into the proceedings, Trump was reduced to petulant defensiveness. At the end, both his feet were perforated with multiple bullet holes – a historically awful performance.

How awful? One of his most pugnacious partisans, Rudy Giuliani, a former mayor of New York City, showed up in the spin room to cry foul. The debate moderator, an equable, self-restrained network anchorman, had had the temerity to correct one of Trump’s more flagrant lies by citing widely documented data. “If I were Donald Trump,” Giuliani said, “I wouldn’t participate in another debate unless I was promised that the journalist would act like a journalist and not an incorrect, ignorant fact-checker.” Goddam facts!

Twenty years ago, while preparing a profile of Trump for the New Yorker, I spent a great deal of time with him across several months. Early on, I decided not to take personally the transparent distortions that constantly burbled from his lips – or, if you will, his reflexive lying – telling myself, ‘That’s just the way the man talks.’ Trump said many things that I found baffling, such as when he described the apartments he sold as belonging to three categories: “luxury, super luxury and super-super luxury.” This taxonomy led to my conclusion that he “had aspired to and achieved the ultimate luxury, an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul.”

Naturally, Trump hated what I wrote and my reward was his undying enmity. But I knew that my verdict was accurate, evidence of which the electorate has now been exposed to for more than a year. Still, I am resisting presumptuous optimism. This is a matter of national life or death. Trump, soulless or not, might yet be the next occupant of the White House. Should that come to pass, dear Lord, please save ours.

Mark Singer has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1974.  He is also the author of Trump & Me, published by Penguin Books.

This article is taken from PORT issue 19, out now.