At the timber market yesterday, I met a man named Jewel with smooth black skin that was endless and unbreakable in its sheen. As the sun perched on a strip of his bare shoulder, that portion on his left arm glistened so fiercely that it could have liquefied over his muscles, if it felt like. He was sitting on a thick strip of wood, wearing a green tank top and khaki trousers, overshadowing the other two men next to him. I told him immediately. “You have beautiful skin. It’s the first thing I noticed.” He cracked his mouth open to show his teeth in a half smile and as he nodded, he said ‘Thank you,’ with no real intent of continuing the conversation.
It was fine with me. He’s not the type of person you force speech out of and his aura warns you, so you don’t have to guess.
There was a scene unfolding before us in which a woman shouted at a drunk man for saying the current government is our country’s salvation. “Shut up! Just shut up! Market women wan crase for this government. Dem dey kill us, kill our business, then you dey here dey talk nonsense. You are talking nonsense.” The drunk man staggered forward and said “See, I will die for this government. I’ll die.”
When the man said that, Jewel turned to me. He opened his mouth as if to say something. But instead, he smiled and shook his head. We had a conversation after that. Throughout, he decided the fate of his own sentences, took pauses at his own convenience as opposed to where punctuation should be, bringing the conversation to the pace of a lazy river.
I stood transfixed, hanging on to every word.
He let me take a Polaroid picture of him. I gave it to him. I stood next to him and together, with my hand on his shoulder, we watched the picture develop in his hand.
But I also met a tired woman who yelled at me for photographing a teenage boy who had taken his time to approach me to have his photo taken. I saw him trying to decide if it was worth it to come at all. He chose to.
“Take me,” he said. I expected him to remove the tray from his head before taking the picture. But he didn’t. He just stood still. So I started taking the photos.
I noticed the woman standing beside me and staring as I took the photos, so I said Good Afternoon. When she replied me, she made sure that her eyes met my own – “You want to capture his poverty, our poverty.” She said it calmly, and it cut me immediately. To her, it wasn’t an accusation as much as it was a conclusion, so she didn’t need my reply. For that reason, she only gave me time to open my mouth before she charged away from the scene. I looked back at the boy, feeling powerless. He was looking at my feet.
Em. was visibly startled by that, seeing as he had been standing next to me the whole time. He replied her saying Madam, you are not poor.
My hands were half suspended in the air, trying to find words. But she was determined to make her point. “If we are not poor, why else would this young boy be selling market? Is he not supposed to be in school?”
The boy joined his teeth in a grind, sharpening his jaw. He was embarrassed. She stripped the confidence he had built to approach me, in the heart of that small crowd, in an attempt to expose something else about him that he hadn’t previously considered as a way to define himself. He didn’t see himself as poor, he saw himself as J. Even when I was conscious of how he might want to appear, he wasn’t. He just wanted a photo as he was. She was talking to me, but the residual implication for him was that he had to reconsider his own trust for me. What that would have meant – if previously considered – is that he should never have walked up to me, and if he did, I should have known better than to agree.
Rage like that is valid – and I like that she challenged me in that moment. But context is important too.
In an attempt to save him from my camera, the woman re-fixed the boy in a merciless light, right in the center of a growing crowd of eyes.
Of course I put my camera down. But she had already dangled a label over his head and in trying to shame me, shamed him too. In that moment of friction, someone responded to the woman’s angry back
“Today is Saturday! He does go to school. You don’t know him. He is allowed to sell at the weekends. He is helping his mother.” I don’t know if she heard. But he did and he knew I did too, so after that had been said, he looked at me again. I asked him if he still wanted the Polaroid shot. He said yes. So I took the picture and gave it to him.
I’m learning that you can preserve a person’s dignity, pull them out from the claws of shame, by telling their story correctly. And you can corrode their identity by emphasizing the wrong things. I know that even though I hadn’t been wrong at all in that context, I could have been in another. Because there was so little time to be in the place, I had been so anxious and desperate to make work that I hadn’t let myself stay in the moment long enough to be changed by it. Instant gratification is cheap. I should know enough about the people I photograph to preserve their dignities in little ways, if/when it comes to it.