Who Thrives and Who Dies in America?

words by daphne milner

Photographs from the land of milk and honey

 

The Land of Milk and Honey is an ongoing project by stylist Alexander-Julian Gibbson and designer Shakeil Greeley that explores the nuances of American identity by photographing and interviewing immigrant families from across the country.

Photography by Travis Matthews.
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What does it mean to be American? It is this seemingly simple question that stylist Alexander-Julian Gibbson and designer and writer Shakeil Greeley sought to answer as they traveled across the United States—from California to Florida to Texas—over the course of the last year.

 

On their journey, they’ve photographed and interviewed dozens of immigrant families who have either migrated themselves or are descendents of people who have moved to America in pursuit of a better life. The project, which Gibbson and Greeley have named The Land of Milk and Honey, is in equal parts a celebration of those immigrant communities, of their perseverance and solidarity, as it is a study on the fluidity of national identity. Made up of documentary-like family portraits styled and creatively directed by Gibbson and framed by short interviews conducted by Greeley, The Land of Milk and Honey invites each family member to reflect on questions at the core of the American dream: What are American values? Are you free in America?  Who thrives in America? Who dies in America?

 

The answers reveal a complex and thought-provoking patchwork of opinions, dismantling the reductive narratives about immigration that so often dominate the mainstream media. Instead, they prompt deeper questions around cultural belonging and hybridity as well as the politics of land ownership and the colonial legacies of modern-day borders.

 

Below, Atmos speaks with Greeley and Gibbson about the evolution of The Land of Milk and Honey.

Photography by Travis Matthews.

Daphne Milner

How did the project come about? And the collaboration between the two of you?

Alexander-Julian Gibbson

I came up with the concept a long time ago to do a photo story about the different cultures within America. A lot of my personal work studies the intersection of fashion and culture. Typically, I’d go to different countries to study the culture and highlight the creatives and the fashion scene. For this project, I wanted to do that but in America. I was born in Houston, Texas, and there’s a large population of Nigerians there. Growing up, I was surrounded by Nigerians. My school was full of Nigerians, I went to Nigerian church, Nigerian parties. Even when I went back home to Nigeria I felt like I wasn’t really missing the nuances that people miss when they’re not raised back home. As I grew older I realised other people have these communities—like Little Haiti in Miami and Chinatown in New York.

 

The idea [for The Land of Milk and Honey] came about during the Trump presidency when there was a lot of rhetoric about going back to where we came from. And I was like, man, this is really crazy because the best thing about America is that it’s a melting pot. So, that’s what we wanted to do—celebrate that mix.

Shakeil Greeley

To add to what AJ has said, I’ve been doing this question series that I’ve been posting on Instagram since 2018 about America, broadly speaking. So, [asking] questions like: who dies in America? Who thrives in America? What do you love about America? What do you hate about America? What does the American flag mean to you? What do you think the American flag means to someone who’s not American? It rolled into a bigger project of around 76 questions—and then AJ hit me up and was like yo, these questions are really interesting. I have this idea about this photo project. He suggested putting these two projects about immigrant communities [in the U.S.] together. And we both agreed that it would be really awesome to not only shoot these families, but like their opinions and thoughts and perspectives on all those same things that we’re talking about now.

Daphne

I know the project that you’re working on is very U.S.-specific, but the way you’ve captured that intersectionality and hybridity of cultures across immigrant communities resonates on a global scale.

AJ

A hundred percent, I agree. [Intersectionality] has definitely become a recurring theme throughout shooting the process. In particular, that idea of housing multiple cultures within yourself—it expands far beyond America.

Shakeil

That globalization aspect of the project has been really interesting to watch unfold and to see how interconnected everything is. There are all these threads that are so consistent throughout the project. You’ll see that a lot of the Black and Brown families will answer the who thrives and who dies in America question similarly—they’ll generally be like, who thrives? white people; who dies? Black people. Another really clear thread emerges when looking at the difference between the older generations—the first generation—and then the youngest generation. A lot of the kids are usually super critical about [the U.S.] compared to their older relatives.

AJ

That was something I wanted to explore in this project. A lot of our parents that worked really hard to come to America or migrate to another country, their concept of the American dream is so different from mine and I was born here. When I think of America, I think of all the ways we fail [people], but [my parents] might overlook those things because they’ve worked so hard to get here.

Photography by Andres Navarro.

Daphne

Building on what you’re saying, AJ, how did you decide on the families you featured in the project. And how did their identities inform the way you styled the images?

AJ

I mainly met the families through friends or on Instagram. All I did was listen to the families that were interested in participating and who were willing to answer the questions because I honestly feel like everybody has a story to tell. Some of the most interesting families, I didn’t even know their stories until after we shot them and Shakeil was interviewing them.

 

And going back to what we were talking about before, about how immigrants have had to build their lives here and form these intangible bonds, I wanted to shoot these families within their communities and show these monuments to their cultures that they’ve built on this land. For example, in Houston we don’t have a Little Nigeria, but there’s this one street that we all happen to live on and where all of our businesses are. That’s also where the first Nigerian restaurant in Houston is. And so I felt it was very important to highlight the family we were photographing outside that particular space.

 

The same thing goes for the designers. Most of the clothes were pulled from designers that were from the diaspora of the respective communities. Bear in mind I would be styling a family—regular people—who weren’t into fashion and who didn’t know these designers. But when they wore the clothes they’d be like God, this stuff is so amazing. And I’d be like, oh, this designer is Filipino. They’d reply, oh my God, really? And like a [pinch] of pride would light up in their eyes. It created so many beautiful moments.

Photography by Alexander Saladrigas.

Daphne

Shakeil, over to you, what informed the questions you asked participants?

Shakeil

I’m a big proponent of interviewing regular people. Not everyone needs to have a thing going on to have their story told. And the questions evolved in a couple of different ways. I was looking at a lot of different references—actually one of the biggest influences was the U.S. citizenship test. That’s in part because my mom and a bunch of my Jamaican family have all become citizens since I’ve lived here. When I heard about the test, I just found it fascinating so some of the questions are actually directly pulled from that test.

 

The questions were just trying to find different ways to look at this place and the people who built it, while still leaving a lot of room for people to bring their own interpretation to the questions. The real goal was to make sure that anyone answering them had the agency and the space to dig into the questions on their own and not be swayed one way or the other.

Daphne

Has your perception of the American dream changed as The Land of Milk and Honey progressed?

AJ

Mine surprisingly has. Before our first shoot, the city of Houston did a dinner for us where we invited a bunch of Nigerian influencers. At one point in the night, one of the influencers—she’s actually on the Nigerian Olympic bobsleigh team—was like we are our parents’ American dream. They’ve poured themselves into us to make sure that we’re able to see and do all the things that they wanted to do but couldn’t. That really resonated with me because my mom is a single mom and I’m an only child. It’s literally just me and her. As I’ve been growing up and working in the [fashion] industry, I’ve noticed anytime I can get my mom involved in my work she lights up. And I feel like if she had the opportunities that I had, she would also be doing something creative like this. It’s almost like she lives vicariously through me sometimes.

Photography by Dennis Tejero.

Shakeil

I can relate to pretty much everything AJ is saying about having a one-on-one mom relationship. My mom’s a doctor, and she has worked crazy hard. She went to med school, did her residency when I was like a baby even though she was a single parent for a long time. But, for me, it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about when it comes to what the American dream is. What does it mean that all of these people from around the world felt that they had to leave their homes, their communities, what was familiar to them and in order to make it or have economic freedom.

 

And I’ve been thinking a lot about that in the context of colonialism and how so many of these places that we’re featuring were hit really hard by American industry and capitalism. There’s a reason why people had to leave the Philippines and there’s a reason why people had to leave Haiti or Mexico. And  in a lot of cases you can trace the reasons back to imperialism and colonialism. They didn’t have the option to stay.

 

One of my favorite answers I’ve seen is that a lot of people’s favorite thing about the U.S. is being in solidarity with other immigrant communities and in communities of color. There’s such beauty in the fact that all these people with all these different cultures could come and make something for themselves here.

Daphne

In your outline, one of the questions you pose is “What does it mean to seek a destiny on unceded land?” How have you come to understand the role of land in The Land of Milk and Honey?

Shakeil

The key thing with the project is we’re specifically focusing on immigrant families who were not displaced. They left [their homelands] specifically because they wanted to come here. But it’s important to remember that we are on land that has historically been lived in by Native Americans for the whole of history. And they’re still trying to survive despite being systemically displaced, downtrodden, and killed. As we begin to develop the project and put it into a book and we’re naming all these places, I want to acknowledge the people who have historically lived on this land for thousands of years.

 

Another dimension to that question is the notion of borders. We were talking about that earlier today: what does it mean that people who live in Laredo, Texas, for example, have a totally different set of circumstances for largely arbitrary reasons from people living 50 miles south from them? It’s important to acknowledge the history of the land here. Because who gets to say what land belongs to what nationality?

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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