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GH2013

The Reveal: How Photographers Shoot Anyone Who Isn’t Thin, Able Bodied & “Conventionally” Beautiful

I set my beverage down with a gentle thud and smiled generously, grateful to be surrounded by the laughter and reverie of friends I hadn’t seen in years…some in over 20. Kwae Terrace, a swanky rooftop spot in Accra, offered all of the elements required for a memorable mini class reunion: Tropical drinks infused with local spirits, views of the fast-developing Airport City beneath us and murals strategically placed for impeccable Instagram moments. I felt like I was home, really home. Perhaps it was those feelings of filial familiarity or the unexpected buzz courtesy of my sugar-rimmed drink, but just a few minutes into our group conversation I casually mentioned the following:

“So guys! I’m considering becoming a surrogate mother!”

The reactions from my friends were varied in all ways but one: Each person made the vehemency of their disapproval very clear. In any group of friends, there is always one who is the loudest and most verbose. (Surprise! There’s someone even louder than me!) Amidst the flurry of dissenting opinions to this announcement, The Loudest One’s voice rose above the din. She rattled off an endless list about the horrors of pregnancy (as though I am not well-acquainted. I DO have four kids to her two, after all) before lobbing this missile:

“At this your big, big age?” she spat. “You should worry about fixing your body before you worry about trying to have a baby for someone else.”

No one came to my defense, except to gasp audibly. Did I really hear what I just thought? It appeared so. Not wanting to make a scene and take the “argument” into the dark places my mind was leading me, I apologized for wanting to share any news with the people I loved and went back to slurping on my drink. I was barely 14 hours into my first trip back to Ghana since 2019, and already I had been put down about my weight.

As any woman over a size 12 can corroborate, fat-shaming in Ghana is sport for the locals. Overweight women, such as myself, are expected to endure name-calling and taunts like obolo (fatty) and k3si3 (big) with grace. Always with grace and dignity. Disparaging remarks about weight are never to be responded to with anything but a demure, even apologetic, smile and a good natured ai (yes) in reply. However on a hot and humid Easter Sunday, just a few days after this incident, three of my father’s female friends quipped that they had not seen me since I was 14 and noted several times about how big I’d gotten. I blame the heat for forgetting the rules of engagement.

“Well, I’m a 44 year old woman and I’ve had 4 kids,” I snapped. “I should be bigger than I was at 14.”

That shut down any further conversation on the topic.

All the same, I prefer this form of denigration to the paternalistic prattle some of my other friends have resorted to in order to get their digs in about my weight and size. “I’m just so concerned about your health,” they say. “Being heavier makes you at greater risk for…” It’s in these moments that years of rehearsed restraint and deep breathing come in handy; The urge to sit on such persons until they are gasping for breath is so strong.

I have been disrespected in multitudinous ways because of my weight over the years and I thought I had encountered them all. And as Ghanaians lack creativity in general, I thought I had enough pre-packaged responses for the canned disses they dish out. However barely a week ago, I was treated to a new form of dishonor courtesy of a popular Ghanaian photographer. Nothing to date had prepared me for this.

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A trio of men showed up at the location where my friend and I were shooting pictures for promotional marketing materials. Of the three, I was only acquainted with one by name and that was via Twitter. He’d blocked me some time ago and in response I blocked him back. As you can see, the shoot was off to an amiable start. Representatives from The Company that had paid for the make up artist and shoot were on site, providing a much needed buffer for the awkwardness. The photogs were highly disorganized and very unprofessional in my opinion, but everyone seemed happy with their process so I literally drank water and minded my business.

As the day unfolded (along with my make up, which literally unfolded and slid off my face) it became obvious to me who was the favored subject in the shoot. My colleague, a thin and beautiful woman, was asked by the photographer if her poses were “comfortable”, given direction and encouragement, asked how she was feeling, etc. He shot many, many shots until he smiled and thanked her. The care and consideration she was given was apparent to all, and made even more so by the lack of it that I received. I wasn’t asked about what look I wanted. In fact, I was asked noting at all about “feeling” or “comfort”. I jokingly asked if the photographer was going to make similar attentive inquiries.

“How does that feel?” he asked sarcastically from behind his lens.
“Does it even matter?” I quipped, laughing, perhaps too loudly.

He snapped his shutter a few more times and then announced that was it.

I was genuinely stunned. “Really?”
“Yes,” he said with finality. “I got it.”

Even the reps from The Company were shocked by the brevity of that particular session, echoing my incredulity. However, I rose out of my seat triumphantly. Taking pictures is SO hard for me, but somehow I’d nailed it in just a few short shots. If you got it, you got it!

*******

The Company sent the first few images to us to look at and approve for final editing. I was astonished by what I saw on my screen, and not in a good way. Not in the way a woman expects to see herself after being photographed by a very popular Ghanaian photographer with 12K followers.

“Please don’t publish any of these pictures of me,” I pleaded in frantically sent voice notes. “I deplore them all. I deep down to my soul hate them.”

A long time ago, when I was still large but relatively fit, I read an article written by a woman who described her struggle with her overweight body and the world’s reaction to it. Of particular interest was her boyfriend’s unconscious bias towards her body. He was skilled behind a lens and could make anything he took a picture of look beautiful…anything but her. Cats and crows became works of art in his viewfinder, but the disdain he felt for her was undeniable in the unflattering angles and carelessness the shone through the shutter. Even though I at the time embodied an acceptable type of fatness termed ‘slim-thick’ and therefore spared the worse derision, her palatable disenchantment stuck with me over the years.

To paraphrase the author of the article in question: You can always tell when the person on the other side of the lens holds you with care. From the pictures I had been confronted with, it was abundantly clear that this photographer – and his team – did not care about me, and despite not knowing me possibly didn’t like me either. They shot me from the floor up, or what my husband calls the My 600 lbs Life angle, emphasizing the fullness of my chin. The buttoned down shirt I was wearing was bunched up and in sloppy disarray, something that could have been easily solved by advising me to straighten and tuck. Where my eyes were too far upwards he shot anyways, when any photographer worth his/her salt knows that too much of the whites of the eyes exposed creates a ghoulish effect.

Ghoulish. Sloppy. A throwaway thing.

This is how the photographer made me look in his pictures. The camera doesn’t lie, right? I would have believed these things to be true about myself, if not for the incredible Charl Kemp, a South African photographer who has always held me with care in every shoot I’ve had to the pleasure to work with him on.

After I made my lament public, Freddie Boswell, the journalist and thinker (and my new bestie) summed it up best when she said:

And that’s about the size of it. No amount of pretending can conceal the intentions of your heart, particularly when you wield such powerful tools as a scalpel, camera or microphone. (Not that one would ever accuse podcast bros of attempting to conceal their undisguised contempt for anything or anyone they don’t immediately want to sleep with.) Those of us who exist outside of the margins of what is considered normal, desirable, beautiful…worthy.…we see you for what you really are. Hopefully, you will acknowledge your truth and adjust before more unnecessary harm is caused.

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