A Photo-essay: Decolonizing My Body, My Being

December 12, 2012
By

Photographer: Saddi Khali

By: Edward Ndopu

In the winter of 2011, almost three weeks before my twenty-first birthday, I had the extraordinary pleasure of joining forces with photographer Saddi Khali, a visionary artist celebrated for producing exquisite nude portraits of black and brown bodies. In fact, I myself commissioned him to photograph me nude. Initially, I was enthusiastic about the idea, but when Saddi agreed to a photo shoot, I was petrified. And not because I would be taking my clothes off for a man I barely knew, but rather, because I knew that the bodies he was used to photographing looked nothing like my mine.

Photographer: Saddi Khali

I was deeply worried that he would react negatively to photographing a body that is rendered undesirable in our cultural imaginary, a body that personifies the bottom rung of otherness. In our cultural imaginary, my body is a battleground in the fight against the real threat of violence, of being institutionalized within the medical industrial complex and of experiencing deeply entrenched economic, cultural and social oppression, simply because I move through the world as a black queer femme man who lives with a visible disability.

Photographer: Saddi Khali

But precisely because I move through the world as a black queer femme man with a visible disability, I wanted to be photographed nude, primarily as an act of defiance, an attempt to challenge the white, hetero, cis* normative, “able” bodied standards against which desirability and body acceptance is measured. I had a conversation with Saddi beforehand, explaining the impetus behind my motivation to want to work with him.

Photographer: Saddi Khali

On the day of the photo shoot, he reassured me that, in case I was feeling anxious about being naked in front of the camera, which I wasn’t, I had absolutely nothing to worry about. He told me that he was experienced, which I already knew, and that he had seen countless naked bodies, of many shapes and sizes. He was professional, patient and polite in his attempt to set the right tone for the photo shoot. But, he sidestepped the elephant in the room. We both knew that this photo shoot was going to be different than photo shoots he did in the past.

Photographer: Saddi Khali

I felt his hesitation as he laid out his equipment in preparation to take the first picture. I clung tightly to my robe, listening intently to my heaving chest. In my head I was starting to regret it all. My biggest fear was that he would make a spectacle out of my body, failing hopelessly to immortalize it as a representation of resistance against hegemonic bodily aesthetics. While my mind was racing about the potential catastrophic outcome of this photo shoot, Saddi took out his laptop and played neosoul tracks as background music. He said the music necessitated a comfortable and warm ambience. Though, I think this was also a way of deflecting our attention from the awkward silence in the room.

Photographer: Saddi Khali

As soon as Saddi was ready to begin photographing me, I gave the go-ahead for my personal attendant in the room to undress me. I then positioned my wheelchair beside the window because Saddi indicated that he only works with natural light. As I stared out into the parking lot, he took several side profile shots. Then, he paused, looked at the images, and stood silent. His awkward facial expression unnerved me. After a few seconds, he relaxed his face. Smiling broadly, he turned his camera around and showed me a few of the images he took. I was impressed and relieved at the same time. My body looked amazing. The angle from which he shot was perfect, because it accentuated the magnificence of my frame.

Photographer: Saddi Khali

I had never felt so in awe of my body before. I looked up, nodding in approval. He looked into my eyes and then started tearing up. “I get it”, he said. “I get it!” My heart swelled with joy because I knew exactly what he meant. He understood the purpose of the entire exercise. He realized that he wasn’t just photographing a naked black queer femme man with a visible disability, but essentially, peering into my consciousness and extrapolating a truth I already knew: that my body, that all of our bodies, are worthy of aesthetic adulation, that communities, institutions and power are at fault for constructing beauty, desirability and body positivity in reductive, myopic ways.

Photographer: Saddi Khali

Photographer: Saddi Khali

Working with Saddi Khali was one of the most validating, affirming and moving experiences of my life. The entire process, from beginning to end, was an act of ontological decolonization – a declaration of ownership over my own body. It was the best birthday gift I could have possibly given myself.

Author bio:  Named by the Mail and Guardian Newspaper as one of their Top 200 Young South Africans, Edward Ndopu (22) is a young social critic, community organizer, consultant, activist, scholar and public speaker. After graduating from the African Leadership Academy, Edward won a scholarship to attend Carleton University where he is currently furthering his commitment to social justice advocacy. Edward is the founder of the Global Strategy for Inclusive Education and is known for his advocacy on the educational rights of children with disabilities in developing countries. He is a regular on the international conference circuit, and has participated as a panelist and discussion leader at the World Youth Meeting in Italy and gave a Master’s Tea at Yale University. He is also a consultant, and has worked for the World Economic Forum, producing a white paper on the role of business in addressing youth employability and education. Edward is primarily an activist, focusing on the intersections of genders, sexualities, race, ability, and class in relation to structural discrimination. He is currently the administrative coordinator of the GLBTQ Centre for Sexual and Gender Diversity at Carleton University. He also serves on the board for the Institute of Research, Education, Accessibility, and Design (READ).

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77 Responses to A Photo-essay: Decolonizing My Body, My Being

  1. Marilyn Cooper on December 12, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    Thank you for your faith and openness. The beauty of your body symbolism is overwhelming. Thank you for your honesty, now I understand. Fantastic!!

  2. Marilyn Cooper on December 12, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    Thank you for your faith and openness. The beauty of your body symbolism is overwhelming. Thank you for your honesty, now I understand. Fantastic!!

  3. Marilyn Cooper on December 12, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    Thank you for your faith and openness. The beauty of your body symbolism is overwhelming. Thank you for your honesty, now I understand. Fantastic!!

  4. Marilyn Cooper on December 12, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    Thank you for your faith and openness. The beauty of your body symbolism is overwhelming. Thank you for your honesty, now I understand. Fantastic!!

  5. a.j. michael on December 12, 2012 at 4:03 pm

    Edward – echoing the last comment – thank you for your openness and sharing yourself so freely and willingly. You have set wind to the fire within me and i feel brighter being connected to your story. Thank you for being a beacon, an inspiration – though most importantly – the most unbridled, truthful and honest you you could ever be.

    <3 ajm.

  6. a.j. michael on December 12, 2012 at 4:03 pm

    Edward – echoing the last comment – thank you for your openness and sharing yourself so freely and willingly. You have set wind to the fire within me and i feel brighter being connected to your story. Thank you for being a beacon, an inspiration – though most importantly – the most unbridled, truthful and honest you you could ever be.

    <3 ajm.

  7. a.j. michael on December 12, 2012 at 4:03 pm

    Edward – echoing the last comment – thank you for your openness and sharing yourself so freely and willingly. You have set wind to the fire within me and i feel brighter being connected to your story. Thank you for being a beacon, an inspiration – though most importantly – the most unbridled, truthful and honest you you could ever be.

    <3 ajm.

  8. a.j. michael on December 12, 2012 at 4:03 pm

    Edward – echoing the last comment – thank you for your openness and sharing yourself so freely and willingly. You have set wind to the fire within me and i feel brighter being connected to your story. Thank you for being a beacon, an inspiration – though most importantly – the most unbridled, truthful and honest you you could ever be.

    <3 ajm.

  9. Toyia Zachery on December 12, 2012 at 6:45 pm

    Thank you for allowing me in-to this space. What Freedom!

  10. Toyia Zachery on December 12, 2012 at 6:45 pm

    Thank you for allowing me in-to this space. What Freedom!

  11. Toyia Zachery on December 12, 2012 at 6:45 pm

    Thank you for allowing me in-to this space. What Freedom!

  12. Toyia Zachery on December 12, 2012 at 6:45 pm

    Thank you for allowing me in-to this space. What Freedom!

  13. Spectra Speaks on December 12, 2012 at 6:56 pm

    I got to *meet* Edward virtually, as I was traveling through Southern Africa this year. We were both participating on a panel hosted by the Children Rights’ Centre, on the power of youth advocacy. I was wow-ed by his voice and passion for using technology to make education more accessible to people with disabilities. I had no idea he was queer, but I’m proud he’s fam :) Edward, thank you for sharing such a beautiful essay, and for no doubt using that fierce spirit of yours to guide the photographer’s lens. Beautiful. Just beautiful. (And thanks to TFW for sharing!)

  14. Spectra Speaks on December 12, 2012 at 6:56 pm

    I got to *meet* Edward virtually, as I was traveling through Southern Africa this year. We were both participating on a panel hosted by the Children Rights’ Centre, on the power of youth advocacy. I was wow-ed by his voice and passion for using technology to make education more accessible to people with disabilities. I had no idea he was queer, but I’m proud he’s fam :) Edward, thank you for sharing such a beautiful essay, and for no doubt using that fierce spirit of yours to guide the photographer’s lens. Beautiful. Just beautiful. (And thanks to TFW for sharing!)

  15. Spectra Speaks on December 12, 2012 at 6:56 pm

    I got to *meet* Edward virtually, as I was traveling through Southern Africa this year. We were both participating on a panel hosted by the Children Rights’ Centre, on the power of youth advocacy. I was wow-ed by his voice and passion for using technology to make education more accessible to people with disabilities. I had no idea he was queer, but I’m proud he’s fam :) Edward, thank you for sharing such a beautiful essay, and for no doubt using that fierce spirit of yours to guide the photographer’s lens. Beautiful. Just beautiful. (And thanks to TFW for sharing!)

  16. Spectra Speaks on December 12, 2012 at 6:56 pm

    I got to *meet* Edward virtually, as I was traveling through Southern Africa this year. We were both participating on a panel hosted by the Children Rights’ Centre, on the power of youth advocacy. I was wow-ed by his voice and passion for using technology to make education more accessible to people with disabilities. I had no idea he was queer, but I’m proud he’s fam :) Edward, thank you for sharing such a beautiful essay, and for no doubt using that fierce spirit of yours to guide the photographer’s lens. Beautiful. Just beautiful. (And thanks to TFW for sharing!)

  17. soukup on December 12, 2012 at 8:02 pm

    What a wonderful piece. Thank you so much for sharing your experience!

    My only question is why the images are so tiny — they’re barely larger than a postage stamp, and I can hardly see them. And my vision is pretty good, too, so I can only imagine how people feel who have vision problems. Would it be possible for you to use larger images? It sounds like it was a lovely shoot, and I’d love to be able to view the results.

    • Monica J. Casper on December 13, 2012 at 8:54 am

      Thanks for your note. We did enlarge the images, and you might also consider Rosa’s comment about clicking on and opening up the images to view them better.

  18. soukup on December 12, 2012 at 8:02 pm

    What a wonderful piece. Thank you so much for sharing your experience!

    My only question is why the images are so tiny — they’re barely larger than a postage stamp, and I can hardly see them. And my vision is pretty good, too, so I can only imagine how people feel who have vision problems. Would it be possible for you to use larger images? It sounds like it was a lovely shoot, and I’d love to be able to view the results.

    • Monica J. Casper on December 13, 2012 at 8:54 am

      Thanks for your note. We did enlarge the images, and you might also consider Rosa’s comment about clicking on and opening up the images to view them better.

  19. soukup on December 12, 2012 at 8:02 pm

    What a wonderful piece. Thank you so much for sharing your experience!

    My only question is why the images are so tiny — they’re barely larger than a postage stamp, and I can hardly see them. And my vision is pretty good, too, so I can only imagine how people feel who have vision problems. Would it be possible for you to use larger images? It sounds like it was a lovely shoot, and I’d love to be able to view the results.

    • Monica J. Casper on December 13, 2012 at 8:54 am

      Thanks for your note. We did enlarge the images, and you might also consider Rosa’s comment about clicking on and opening up the images to view them better.

  20. soukup on December 12, 2012 at 8:02 pm

    What a wonderful piece. Thank you so much for sharing your experience!

    My only question is why the images are so tiny — they’re barely larger than a postage stamp, and I can hardly see them. And my vision is pretty good, too, so I can only imagine how people feel who have vision problems. Would it be possible for you to use larger images? It sounds like it was a lovely shoot, and I’d love to be able to view the results.

    • Monica J. Casper on December 13, 2012 at 8:54 am

      Thanks for your note. We did enlarge the images, and you might also consider Rosa’s comment about clicking on and opening up the images to view them better.

  21. Rosa on December 12, 2012 at 9:29 pm

    soukup, if you’re using a Windows computer, click on an image, then once it is centered on your screen, do control and + to make it bigger.

  22. Rosa on December 12, 2012 at 9:29 pm

    soukup, if you’re using a Windows computer, click on an image, then once it is centered on your screen, do control and + to make it bigger.

  23. Rosa on December 12, 2012 at 9:29 pm

    soukup, if you’re using a Windows computer, click on an image, then once it is centered on your screen, do control and + to make it bigger.

  24. Rosa on December 12, 2012 at 9:29 pm

    soukup, if you’re using a Windows computer, click on an image, then once it is centered on your screen, do control and + to make it bigger.

  25. Carol H. on December 12, 2012 at 11:01 pm

    Thank you for this beautiful photo expression , u have amazed me once again , there are no words to say just beautiful luv u brother

  26. Carol H. on December 12, 2012 at 11:01 pm

    Thank you for this beautiful photo expression , u have amazed me once again , there are no words to say just beautiful luv u brother

  27. Carol H. on December 12, 2012 at 11:01 pm

    Thank you for this beautiful photo expression , u have amazed me once again , there are no words to say just beautiful luv u brother

  28. Carol H. on December 12, 2012 at 11:01 pm

    Thank you for this beautiful photo expression , u have amazed me once again , there are no words to say just beautiful luv u brother

  29. Erin on December 12, 2012 at 11:21 pm

    Wow, so inspiring. Especially this: ” My body looked amazing. The angle from which he shot was perfect, because it accentuated the magnificence of my frame.” I would love to say such a thing about my own body with conviction someday, and I fall into that white, hetero-normative, “able” bodied category. The beauty you see in yourself is truly reflected externally as well. The images are gorgeous.

  30. Erin on December 12, 2012 at 11:21 pm

    Wow, so inspiring. Especially this: ” My body looked amazing. The angle from which he shot was perfect, because it accentuated the magnificence of my frame.” I would love to say such a thing about my own body with conviction someday, and I fall into that white, hetero-normative, “able” bodied category. The beauty you see in yourself is truly reflected externally as well. The images are gorgeous.

  31. Erin on December 12, 2012 at 11:21 pm

    Wow, so inspiring. Especially this: ” My body looked amazing. The angle from which he shot was perfect, because it accentuated the magnificence of my frame.” I would love to say such a thing about my own body with conviction someday, and I fall into that white, hetero-normative, “able” bodied category. The beauty you see in yourself is truly reflected externally as well. The images are gorgeous.

  32. Erin on December 12, 2012 at 11:21 pm

    Wow, so inspiring. Especially this: ” My body looked amazing. The angle from which he shot was perfect, because it accentuated the magnificence of my frame.” I would love to say such a thing about my own body with conviction someday, and I fall into that white, hetero-normative, “able” bodied category. The beauty you see in yourself is truly reflected externally as well. The images are gorgeous.

  33. Jesse Collens on December 12, 2012 at 11:36 pm

    Edward, I am greatly inspired by what you are doing, you are doing so many great things. I suffer from a spinal cord injury that has left me paralyzed from my neck down and ventilator dependent and I can only imagine what your disability may be, and yet I feel so my new compared to you. I’m not sure what I can do but I feel like I would love to speak and share my experiences and hopefully help others at the same time. If I may be of any service to you please let me know. Thank you very much for being yourself!

  34. Jesse Collens on December 12, 2012 at 11:36 pm

    Edward, I am greatly inspired by what you are doing, you are doing so many great things. I suffer from a spinal cord injury that has left me paralyzed from my neck down and ventilator dependent and I can only imagine what your disability may be, and yet I feel so my new compared to you. I’m not sure what I can do but I feel like I would love to speak and share my experiences and hopefully help others at the same time. If I may be of any service to you please let me know. Thank you very much for being yourself!

  35. Jesse Collens on December 12, 2012 at 11:36 pm

    Edward, I am greatly inspired by what you are doing, you are doing so many great things. I suffer from a spinal cord injury that has left me paralyzed from my neck down and ventilator dependent and I can only imagine what your disability may be, and yet I feel so my new compared to you. I’m not sure what I can do but I feel like I would love to speak and share my experiences and hopefully help others at the same time. If I may be of any service to you please let me know. Thank you very much for being yourself!

  36. Jesse Collens on December 12, 2012 at 11:36 pm

    Edward, I am greatly inspired by what you are doing, you are doing so many great things. I suffer from a spinal cord injury that has left me paralyzed from my neck down and ventilator dependent and I can only imagine what your disability may be, and yet I feel so my new compared to you. I’m not sure what I can do but I feel like I would love to speak and share my experiences and hopefully help others at the same time. If I may be of any service to you please let me know. Thank you very much for being yourself!

  37. Elee on December 13, 2012 at 3:28 am

    Thank you for this. You are a beautiful person; inside and out.

  38. Elee on December 13, 2012 at 3:28 am

    Thank you for this. You are a beautiful person; inside and out.

  39. Elee on December 13, 2012 at 3:28 am

    Thank you for this. You are a beautiful person; inside and out.

  40. Elee on December 13, 2012 at 3:28 am

    Thank you for this. You are a beautiful person; inside and out.

  41. Alexis Pauline Gumbs on December 13, 2012 at 4:32 am

    love. love. love.

  42. Alexis Pauline Gumbs on December 13, 2012 at 4:32 am

    love. love. love.

  43. Alexis Pauline Gumbs on December 13, 2012 at 4:32 am

    love. love. love.

  44. Alexis Pauline Gumbs on December 13, 2012 at 4:32 am

    love. love. love.

  45. Catherine on December 13, 2012 at 7:49 am

    This was absolutely beautiful and breathtaking. I am inspired by your courage and your brilliance. Please continue to confront the hegemonic structures that attempt to dictate our existence.

  46. Catherine on December 13, 2012 at 7:49 am

    This was absolutely beautiful and breathtaking. I am inspired by your courage and your brilliance. Please continue to confront the hegemonic structures that attempt to dictate our existence.

  47. Catherine on December 13, 2012 at 7:49 am

    This was absolutely beautiful and breathtaking. I am inspired by your courage and your brilliance. Please continue to confront the hegemonic structures that attempt to dictate our existence.

  48. Catherine on December 13, 2012 at 7:49 am

    This was absolutely beautiful and breathtaking. I am inspired by your courage and your brilliance. Please continue to confront the hegemonic structures that attempt to dictate our existence.

  49. Elvia on December 14, 2012 at 10:13 am

    What a beautiful and bold statement. Your spirit is FIERCE! Thank you for sharing it.

  50. Elvia on December 14, 2012 at 10:13 am

    What a beautiful and bold statement. Your spirit is FIERCE! Thank you for sharing it.

  51. Elvia on December 14, 2012 at 10:13 am

    What a beautiful and bold statement. Your spirit is FIERCE! Thank you for sharing it.

  52. Elvia on December 14, 2012 at 10:13 am

    What a beautiful and bold statement. Your spirit is FIERCE! Thank you for sharing it.

  53. Marci Frazier on December 14, 2012 at 11:53 am

    I cannot begin to tell you how moving this writing is. I cried as I read it again . . . and then again. Thank you so much for sharing your world to the world. I don’t know you, yet I love you. We are all connected in that beautiful way. Thank you.

    ~~Marci~~

  54. Marci Frazier on December 14, 2012 at 11:53 am

    I cannot begin to tell you how moving this writing is. I cried as I read it again . . . and then again. Thank you so much for sharing your world to the world. I don’t know you, yet I love you. We are all connected in that beautiful way. Thank you.

    ~~Marci~~

  55. Marci Frazier on December 14, 2012 at 11:53 am

    I cannot begin to tell you how moving this writing is. I cried as I read it again . . . and then again. Thank you so much for sharing your world to the world. I don’t know you, yet I love you. We are all connected in that beautiful way. Thank you.

    ~~Marci~~

  56. Marci Frazier on December 14, 2012 at 11:53 am

    I cannot begin to tell you how moving this writing is. I cried as I read it again . . . and then again. Thank you so much for sharing your world to the world. I don’t know you, yet I love you. We are all connected in that beautiful way. Thank you.

    ~~Marci~~

  57. ebele on December 15, 2012 at 2:17 am

    I love you. Thank you…for being you. Rarely do I tell myself I love myself. You inspired me to say that just now. Thank you.

    x.

  58. ebele on December 15, 2012 at 2:17 am

    I love you. Thank you…for being you. Rarely do I tell myself I love myself. You inspired me to say that just now. Thank you.

    x.

  59. ebele on December 15, 2012 at 2:17 am

    I love you. Thank you…for being you. Rarely do I tell myself I love myself. You inspired me to say that just now. Thank you.

    x.

  60. ebele on December 15, 2012 at 2:17 am

    I love you. Thank you…for being you. Rarely do I tell myself I love myself. You inspired me to say that just now. Thank you.

    x.

  61. Kirsten on December 19, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    Sir, you make me proud to be a South African, because it is an honour to share a nationality with someone as beautiful as you.

  62. Kirsten on December 19, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    Sir, you make me proud to be a South African, because it is an honour to share a nationality with someone as beautiful as you.

  63. Kirsten on December 19, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    Sir, you make me proud to be a South African, because it is an honour to share a nationality with someone as beautiful as you.

  64. Kirsten on December 19, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    Sir, you make me proud to be a South African, because it is an honour to share a nationality with someone as beautiful as you.

  65. Almah on December 25, 2012 at 10:21 pm

    ALight.

  66. Almah on December 25, 2012 at 10:21 pm

    ALight.

  67. Almah on December 25, 2012 at 10:21 pm

    ALight.

  68. Almah on December 25, 2012 at 10:21 pm

    ALight.

  69. Fabian Thomas on December 28, 2012 at 3:34 pm

    I am filled with awe, respect and humility. Thankful to Edward, Saddi for this soul-gift and my brother-colleague Ocean Morisset for bringing it to my attention

  70. Fabian Thomas on December 28, 2012 at 3:34 pm

    I am filled with awe, respect and humility. Thankful to Edward, Saddi for this soul-gift and my brother-colleague Ocean Morisset for bringing it to my attention

  71. Fabian Thomas on December 28, 2012 at 3:34 pm

    I am filled with awe, respect and humility. Thankful to Edward, Saddi for this soul-gift and my brother-colleague Ocean Morisset for bringing it to my attention

  72. Fabian Thomas on December 28, 2012 at 3:34 pm

    I am filled with awe, respect and humility. Thankful to Edward, Saddi for this soul-gift and my brother-colleague Ocean Morisset for bringing it to my attention

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