(7 minute read)
In November 2016, I lost a friend.
Almost all of my memories of high school and that special age of 14/15 feature him and the same group of boys always getting in trouble. His voice of mischief (or at least voice of encouragement if you were to come up with a stupid enough idea), his unflinching laughter, and his quiet kindness that made you feel like you really mattered. His fearlessness that often scared me, his deep sense of loyalty and fairness, his magnetic quality that we all gravitated to. In memories of him, I see the best of all the rest of us.
Looking back at that age, we were all going through so much.
We all knew but never really talked about it.
In the weeks and months that followed his passing, I felt a deep sense of guilt. I had lost touch with most of those friends and hadn’t spoken to many of them in years. I thought of the summers/winters that had passed when I didn’t go home, or even when I did go home and never really re-connected with them. We all changed, but I couldn’t help but wonder what life would’ve been like if we all kept in touch. What if I checked on them more often? What if we had all stayed as close as we were that one summer? For weeks I looked back at his pictures and as far back as I could scroll, I could almost feel the sadness in his eyes.
I couldn’t go back in time no matter how much I wanted to, so I turned to my camera. I started to think about how people communicate hurt and pain. If something was too painful to talk about, maybe we could just show it? If we had been socialized as Black and African men not to talk about the pain we experienced, would the hurt just tear away at us until it came out from behind our eyes?
I sent an email to as many Black and African email lists at my school as I could find, asking men to sit with me and talk about their experiences with mental health. I would take some pictures during the conversation and hopefully we would create something beautiful.
The first three people to reply were three of my closest friends, so I responded to them first. We scheduled a time to talk, I prepared questions, and turned my room into a “studio” using a desk lamp and a bed sheet.
Over the course of the next four days, I had conversations with these three friends. We talked about confidence, anxiety, family, pressure, depression, loss, sex, sexuality, gender, loneliness, success, failure, happiness, love, and in between I took some photos.
After four days of conversation, I was exhausted, and not just because my bed sheet was on the wall as a backdrop. Each session had turned into a sort of therapy session for both people involved. Therapy I wasn’t trained to facilitate, but which I and all three friends fumbled our way through, coming out of the project with something resembling healing. (Thank you to all three of you for talking to me. I love you.) I voice recorded all three sessions on my phone and initially wanted them to be a part of this project; but something about those recordings feels sacred and sharing them would have felt like betrayal. I am sharing the pictures here, almost a year later, dealing with a different type of loss, hoping these photos/this story mean something to someone.
I considered all three of these people good friends (one of them lived one door down from me); but those four days revealed parts of them I had never known and probably would never have known had it not been for this project. The interviews were painful and the things they told me were difficult to hear. Their pain sounded familiar but looked so foreign on their faces. Trying to reach back and touch my friend showed me that there were people right next to me who were struggling just like I was. Just like he was. Just like we all are.
I felt guilty about losing my friend because I always thought there was more I could have done. Some magical words I could have said to help him with what he was feeling. Some way I could have showed him that sometimes I felt those things too. Maybe all it could have taken was a black bed sheet and a desk lamp. Maybe all it could have taken was asking the question.
I don't consider myself a writer and this probably seems unpolished. That's probably because I don't think I've fully recovered from Michael’s passing (do we ever really recover from loss?). So, I'll end with a poem that I saw in the hallway of my dorm during all this:
“I loved my friend
He went away from me
There's nothing more to say
The poem ends,
Soft as it began-
I loved my friend."
Thank you to everyone who helped with this process but especially Esther, Chielo, Dan, Lyndon, Onisha, Nyawira and Tapkili. Thank you for all the times you showed me love and I'm sorry for all the times I didn't show it back.