Some say a picture is worth a thousand words, but what do those words often say? Above, the words might tell a story of three travelers embracing a young child in a foreign land. They might even suggest excitement in the moment, a happy moment in a picturesque vacation. But which of those 1,000 words suggest skin-crawling discomfort? Which suggest biting your tongue to protect your amicable demeanor?
As real as photos are, they don’t often reflect reality. Semester at Sea, a global comparative study abroad program, is notorious for having picture perfect moments at nearly every tide—Instagram can’t even compete. Deja and I took advantage of many of those moments. As my best friend on the voyage, My Delaware State University homie and I shared a lifetime worth of experiences together—including the experience of being captured.
When we docked in Shanghai and traveled to Beijing, Deja and I were inundated with requests for photos. We arrived during Chinese New Year, which meant that folks from rural and suburban areas were in the city for celebration. Even in a relatively multicultural city, there was still a population of people who had less engagement with exposure to other cultures. Particularly, many had never seen or met a darker skinned person of African descent.
In our pursuit of discovering new attractions, historical sites, and cultural relics, we became the attractions. Stale in our own bodies, to most we were not humans with emotions, sensibilities, and complicated histories, but foreign figures representing an identity that only existed in the abstract.
A smile can both express and retain a myriad of feelings. Chanel’s smile expresses reservation, displeasure, and just enough friendliness to not be compartmentalized as “angry”—a classification with a history of unfair and biased attribution to black women. Yet, it retains the frustration felt after enduring dehumanizing experiences. A half-smile cloaks the rage brought forward by an attempt to eat noodles spoiled by foreign hands forcefully grabbing her braids. A smile can also bear the truth of innocence—a young girl forced into a photo by her mother. Ignorant of the social implications intertwined into foreignness, race, and global movement, her smile carries a different truth.
There’s beauty in a smile, even when formed under less-than-ideal circumstances. I wasn’t happy to be solicited for photographs while trying to climb The Great Wall, but I have a soft spot for kids. While many of them were forced into pictures by their guardians, some of them truly wanted to be friendly. Next to me stands a young boy who spoke just a tad bit of English and was willing to give all he had for just a brief interaction. He asked for the photo himself, and hugged me afterwards.
By the time we stood together, I had encountered defeat. I was tired of feeling objectified by my blackness. I was certainly physically tired from the many steps of The Great Wall, but defeat didn’t win in this instance. After a very short exchange in English, the kid offered me a hug. The embrace was two-fold. In one sense, it was a very personal embrace that made me feel appreciated. That sort of appreciation assured me that my body wasn’t a prop in a nationwide photoshoot; I had agency in how I interacted with others and had the option of rejecting solicitations I was uninterested in. The hug also represented an embrace I longed for throughout my time in China—an embrace by the culture. For so long, I felt as if I was in a strange place, unwanted for anything more than the social capital of a photo with a foreign idea, place, space, or person. To be hugged for the first time in a place where I desperately longed for the slightest bit of comfort is an experience that I still cherish.
I started writing this because I wanted to capture the experience of being captured, but am left with a liberating exercise in letting go, letting free, and letting love. Images hold what words may often fail to reveal. While many of them can convey false happiness, many do exactly the opposite. Images convey a truth even when masked, and sometimes that truth is unabridged, unapologetic, and unabashed joy.