It is a lot easier to feel a sense of belonging in the pictures when one barely knows anyone they are taking the pictures with.
So it happens, you allow yourself to be carried along with the wave of excitement – an uncertain amount of which is genuine – and you wordlessly acquiesce to the suggestions to stand, to pose, with this assigned group, then that one, then another. Straight face. Silly face. Cover-of-a-magazine face. You are not yet sure if you belong, but you are not yet strongly feeling the sense that you don’t. You stand there as the shutters go off and the phone screen buttons are clicked. You are tagged in Facebook photos. You don’t look bad in them.
You answer several of the same questions for a few days, then a few weeks, then a few months. Nearly all of them are shallow, but people seem so politely entertained by the answers, and they press onward with the obviously pointless and boring conversation more often than you wish. When, you wonder, will people finally get past asking you of your nationality and your accent? But it is okay, you conclude. It is early, and most relationships haven’t fully formed yet, you tell yourself. When it happens, it will happen – and it will happen soon. You take more pictures and don’t think too much about them.
Relationships have formed now. Just not with you. You are partly too private, but also partly uninterested. The people you took pictures with have weekly dinners. They get along with each other more than you do with them, or so it appears. If that is not the case, then they must be superb actors. But then, who wastes all that acting power on hours of conversation past midnight that you can hear outside your door when you are trying to sleep? Or going to amusement parks and restaurants and festivals together? You always know where they’ve been because they always take pictures. This cannot be acting.
You attend the weekly dinners, but are always disengaged. The same superficial questions are asked to you, and they are always asking out of politeness – but politeness stopped making sense to you long ago; you are looking for meaning. However, you already know that meaningful conversations cannot easily be had between yourself and these people. Despite all the pictures, something between you has not clicked, and it probably never will. It isn’t sad. It’s an easily acceptable fact.
There is a boy that everybody loves. He is Asian. He is sweet. You started to love him too because he smiled so innocently and happily at you, and that smile captured your heart. His friends, at some point, start to consider you his friend, for reasons you are unsure of. You notice a few things that are strange about his friends, though:
- They are all Asian.
- They are too nice and too happy (at least, this is how you see them) to be real.
- They all seem to orbit around him like they are planetary satellites and he is a humble sun. He certainly smiles like the sun.
At the end of the year, before Christmas, you take group pictures, like a family. Your smile in those photos is fake. You are bored and uncomfortable, and you know, though you refuse to bring this to the forefront of your mind, that you don’t belong in these pictures. They release the photos on Facebook the night they were taken. A few days later, a friend – an African, a person who looks like you – tells you that those photos were awkward, it looks as if someone cut and pasted you there. You don’t need to look at the photo again to know you agree. And it is not just because you are the only brown spot in the Asian ocean; it is also because of the social dynamics that are not represented by the camera, but which the camera has come to know anyway.
After those photos, you resolve not to be in any more of their pictures, any group chats, or attend any more events. No one really knows you, and there is none among them that you deeply like or know anyway. Let the planets revolve around their sun. You are going off to be your own sun in your solitary system. You begin to take more selfies.
Invisibility comes upon you suddenly, like when you are in a friend’s room. She is a friend because she smiles at you in the bathrooms and the hallways, and you were one of the first people to whom she introduced herself in this new, unfamiliar place. Does that not count for something? You are in her room maybe because you are lonely and idle, but you can’t quite recall how you got there. Did your legs carry you or did she invite you in? Did she feel obligated to?
Invisibility comes upon you suddenly as your friends’ friends – all of whom are very close to your friend’s ethnicity – show up and they start talking about what they did last night and what they’ll do tomorrow. But then it occurs to them: why even wait? They start discussing options for tonight. No one looks at you. No one speaks to you. No one throws you an invite, not just because you will certainly decline, but because you are not even in the room. When you say an abrupt goodbye, your “friend” says goodbye back, without a hint of shame or consciousness of what is happening.
You remember all the pictures you are in together. You were never there to her. Which is fine, because she is still partly two-dimensional in your own mind, frozen in the frame of an Android phone screen.
You have realized by now that people easily fall into cliques of ethnicity. You know, yourself, that you are most comfortable around Africans or other Ghanaians. But you are aware also that when you and others of your kind are gathered, and you suddenly become the most animated you ever are in conversation, there is usually someone outside the ethniclique who is in the pictures by virtue of their presence, but is a ghost to the photographer by virtue of their social exclusion. You never know how to handle these situations because:
- That is how you feel every day. You have begun to think of it as unfortunately normal.
- You hate exclusion, especially of this kind, and want to make a world where it is not experienced by people who can’t help it.
- You are never, ever prepared to be less of yourself for anybody’s sake, particularly because there are very few opportunities to be as much of yourself as you are in these moments.
Someone once told you that you seem to come more alive, sometimes even glow, whenever you are around other Africans. You do not need to see the pictures of yourself with them to know that this is true. In any case, you are always far too engaged in being natural to take pictures. There are no photos. The only photos you belong in, ironically, do not exist.
You are wise enough to know exactly which photos you do not belong in lately. You are satisfied and liberated by this knowledge. You have begun to learn how to decline offers to take pictures and not be racked with guilt as you do so. There is no need to create near-permanent memories of things that are not worth remembering; of things that exist solely for the purpose of the camera. I am proud of you, though. You used to wish, in the past, that you could have been bolder. Removing yourself from pictures you do not want to be in is one of the boldest things you could possibly do.