953: Two Photographs

953: Two Photographs

953: Two Photographs


I’m Major Jackson and this is The Slowdown

December 2022. I’m in the studio of my friend Erin, a photographer. My current author photo is a decade plus outdated; I need a set of images to promote my new book and The Slowdown. Erin has taken my picture before, cross-armed in a tan jacket, the one I’ve used a million times. Photographs are aspirational. I’m burrowing into the task at hand to shield my anxiety. 

Erin and I have known each other since our college and club-hopping days. She’s watched me physically evolve over the years. My grays are coming in like a cloud formation. Erin pulls the camera from her face and encourages me to smile; my biggest asset, she says, which I intentionally suppress. Her assistant adjusts the light pole. 

I’m here because I want to be seen differently. I want the gravitas of a serious writer: erudite, warm, authoritative. Think James Baldwin and his cigarette. Her camera is an ongoing baptism of renewal. Her camera doesn’t feel predatory nor voyeuristic, more sculptural. I feel her shaping me to a vision that I can grow into. She coaxes me into positions, and I sit still. I follow directions. She says be natural. I try to see my body as a continuation of all that is around me. 

While I change outfits, Erin dances or lip-syncs to hip-hop music. I trust her. I select clothes that convey maturity: a professorial tweed jacket, black jeans with gray sweater rolled up to the elbows, and a light suit with clear eyewear.  Compared to our last photo session, I feel more confident, less self-conscious, more willing to yield to her suggestions.

But fact is, the whole while, I am fearful the camera will reveal something about myself that is unknown even to me. I might emerge too seen. Susan Sontag, writing about Robert Mapplethorpe, once wrote, “a [photograph] convey[s] a truth about the subject, a truth that would not be known were it not captured. . . All such claims, however contradictory, are claims of power over the subject.” 

The speaker in today’s poem remarks how photographs, be they selfies or those professionally rendered, capture our growth. Still photography mythologizes a fragment of our journey to become emblematic of our most positive and powerful selves. 

Two Photographs
by Theresa Lola

In the older photograph 
my eyes are two frowning pockets,
and my chest only housed knots and clauses.
I used fast shutter speeds to capture photographs 
before sadness spilled into the frame.
I was never one to track progress, but today I did.

Before taking that selfie, I bent the sun 
toward my face and poured it into my void
like cement filling the cracks of a wall.
My troubled teenage years lingered in my throat
like a shoplifter in a supermarket aisle.

What a difference 5 years makes, today
my skin is no longer a carousel of masks.
Praises be to a thick syrup of therapy,
a puree of prayer, peelings of coping mechanisms,
a cup of my mother’s honeyed voice. 

In the second photograph
the white space is filled with a safe noise.
My shoulders are firm and upward,
my eyes are two glowing pebbles.
Not even an edit can smudge this moment.

"Two Photographs" by Theresa Lola. Used by permission of the poet.