I took this clothed and nude photo of myself in 2008 with a borrowed DSLR. I was taking a film photography class, developing black and white film, studying light and form, and at this time grew tired of photographing industrial design prototypes or architectural features around Atlanta. I wanted to use a human body as a canvas, explore it, celebrate it, and capture it at a moment in time. Almost like a time capsule, I wanted to capture a story or human beauty.
Growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, my mom proudly displayed a framed nude black and white photo of herself in our small house. Taken in the mid 70s, it showed her long dark hair, black shadows contrasting her pale skin, the side of one of her breasts, and long arms and legs despite her short stature. It was amazingly beautiful and sculptural. A snapshot in time and reminder that she was still this human, just with a few more trips around the sun. With this artifact and her lived life, she showed me what brave and beauty could look like. With her personal photographs, the Boris Vallejo calendar proudly displayed in our tiny kitchen, nights out dancing, impeccable style, and her framed marijuana leaf – I grew up in a house that was curious and open, not shame creating or judgmental. I grew up with an introverted rebel that painted dreams, danced like she was part of the music, loved many, and care for many more. I was lucky to grow up with her.
I often wondered if she was terrified taking this now-framed photo of herself. She grew up in a rather religious setting with Missionary parents in Zaire/DRC, attended Christian boarding schools, a Reverend father, and a bible school teacher mother. I can easily imagine my grandmother reciting some Emily Post-like line to my mom about about, “Good girls don’t do this.” Despite or in-spite of these childhood realities, she became a quiet rebel. Yes, she owned her freedom and sense of self, yet I could see how people’s judgment took its toll on her. She wasn’t immune to meanness and jealousy, yet she continued on and powered through. I think that she countered people’s sideways looks and dismissals with being more of herself. Being herself, in her world, gave her energy, gave her hope, gave her incredible friends. So, she gave the world more of her. More high heals and stunning hats. More long painted fingernails and tight Levi’s. More braided hair and flowing sun dresses. More French terms-of-endearment and long drags on cigarettes. More long warm hugs and kitchen floor talks for me. I miss her. She understood and celebrated me then and would be encouraging me to continue being me now.
Back to this photo set. I wanted to take sculptural and beautiful photos, yet was terrified to do so. It’s perverted, taboo, pornographic, wrong for a husband to even think about doing. Being too afraid to ask anyone to be my muse, including Laura, I photographed myself. This allowed me to control the lighting, setup, and poses. I didn’t have to explain to myself why I was doing this or apologize for any weirdness, silliness, or arousal. It wasn’t about getting ‘private part’ pictures, it was really about capturing my full self, for myself. Maybe it is a combination of self-care and self-love. I could just be me and explore the lines and shadows of my 28 year old body. I can now look back at this photo, 14 years later with pride, joy, and support of a younger me.
This photoshoot lasted about an hour and I was so nervous about being caught the entire time. Anticipating the worst-case-scenario, I wrote down what I was going to say in order to defend myself and had my clothes at the ready once I heard someone or something. I jumped a few times and covered up only to realize it was the HVAC kicking on. Why was I afraid of taking nude photos of myself? I gave myself consent and produced these photos for myself – so where does this fear come from? The fear comes from a repressed culture that strips rights away from women, fails to teach history, makes voting difficult for Black and Brown people, and terrorizes LGBTQ individuals. I fear broken people stuck within the broken culture. I don’t fear myself, my family, or most of my friends.
When I finished the shoot, I pulled the memory card out of the borrowed camera and securely placed it in my messenger bag. There was NO way these photos were going to be accidentally seen…by anyone, even Laura. This memory card held secrets, still does, beautiful pictures of my semi-clothed and fully nude self. I hid this memory card and myself because of the cultural narrative that a Black male body is taboo, sin, punishable without consequence, and disposable. The worst case scenario played through my head and continues to, so I hide. I hide so that I can survive, push forward, and prosper.
At 28, I was framing and forming myself for a career in industrial design / user experience design. I was adjusting who I was as a mixed race Black man, husband, son, grandson, and coworker into the culture’s ideal so that I could obtain money, success, and power. I had to fit into a box made by others which meant that thoughts, desires, or photos like these didn’t belong. What existed on this memory card did not fit into the cultural box I was folding myself into.
Yesterday, February 2nd 2023, was my 43rd birthday. While it is not an overly significant year to celebrate, it comes with a growing realization about the box I’ve stuffed myself into. I didn’t create this box AND this box wasn’t meant for me to thrive within. It’s a box of moving goal posts, smoke and mirrors. It is a box of profiting Gods and greed driven gurus. It’s a box of impossible perfection and immeasurable excellence. Living under a manipulative and broken culture’s expectations will only reduce my ability to thrive for myself and support, love, care for my family and others. I must create my own path, a box-less reality, framed with curiosity and love, respect and compassion.
I am at a point where I can look back at this photo, my fears, who I really am, and realize, my mom showed me that the world deserves as much of me as possible. Whether I am 3 year old Bashir or 43 year old Shelton, I owe my kids, my family, the world, and my mom my most authentic self. That my definition of success in this world doesn’t come from money or power, it comes from a combination of my authenticity and my drive to help others harness the power of empathy and compassion for themselves and others. I don’t want to lift others from a place of false perfection, over editing, or white lies. Rather than starve people from my depth of being by holding back important context of my character, I’ve got to let individuals experience as much of me as they need. They get to choose if they want to be around me – I cannot steal this opportunity from others. Clients, employers, friends, community members, and colleagues will have to choose whether to stand with me and walk away. They will have to look deep within themselves and find their own conclusion. In order to inspire critical thinkers, I must give them challenging narratives to think about.
So, my path has nudity, fucking swear words, anger, sadness, sexual arousal, infinite love, and deep joy. It also has brilliance, wisdom, missteps, and mistakes. It doesn’t have perfection, it has practice to improve. It doesn’t have violence, it has empathy and compassion to find solutions. It doesn’t have command and control, it has practice and accountability. The path ahead of me has more photoshoots, more stories, more drawings, more dancing, and more of me. My authentic path is complex and complicated, beautiful and diverse. My success requires that I take this path of authenticity.
“I can’t be right for somebody else if I ain’t right for me.”Sammy David Jr. – I Got To Be Me