Relationships How My Hometown Homie Makes Me Feel Beautiful
In any serious picture of me, I am not comfortable enough to look directly into the lens. I don’t know if I will ever be.
In my favorite picture that you took of me, I am fading into the background. The night we danced like fools, my first winter break back in Toronto after moving to Los Angeles, you visited to pregame at my dorm at Massey College. I wore a black quilted Club Monaco jacket. Stitched on the front of my beanie were the words COLD DAY IN HELL . In the background, lightly sketched into the emulsion, is an outline of a tree branch. My black clothing helps me disappear among the trees until I’m just barely visible from the darkness. I gaze to the right, toward some imaginary camera I could actually bring myself to look into. In any serious picture of me, I am not comfortable enough to look directly into the lens. I don’t know if I will ever be.
When you sent that picture to me on WhatsApp, I remembered how awkward my hands were: A cellphone in my visible hand suggests I’m on my way somewhere else, as if the camera found me in medias res. I forget if that was deliberate. The thing about film photographs is that they’re often forgotten. Time might pass before someone develops the spool. Even with a disposable camera, like the one you had that night, a more deliberate photographer could take plenty of time to finish the film. Plenty of time to forget the pictures.
Shortly after you sent me that photo, the self-doubt dissipated. As I admired your camerawork, I felt my chest swell until it was ready to soar into the sky. My cheeks crumpled, and my mouth puckered into a grin. Fuuuuuck, I looked cute.
Composing a film photograph, like cultivating a friendship, is a commitment. It’s a relationship , you often remind me. The best photographers commit to a subject in front of them and compose an image. These pictures surprise us not only because of how they make us see differently, but also because of the artist’s sheer commitment to a subject one would otherwise overlook.
I didn’t know why you’d commit to me. I didn’t feel worthy of it.
I first officially met you at a shitty café down the road from campus in Scarborough, our suburb east of Toronto. Everyone went to Coffee Culture because, without good transit, it was the only place central enough where people could study and hold meetings. The only table available was beside you, a Filipino skater boy with a stack of study guides for the GRE. I had seen you before on campus but usually, at the University of Toronto Scarborough, most Filipinos knew each other by default. From afar, you reminded me of people I avoided from high school—too cool to ever be caught hanging out with some overweight and awkward nerd like me. When my waist ballooned 150 pounds after my tailbone injury, five years before we met, an athletic and tattooed body like yours seemed like a distant dream—distant enough to stay away from.
It was 2009 when, in a martial arts seminar as I was trying to perform a takedown of a student much taller than me, my lower back smacked the hardwood floor. I had never been the most athletic student in the gym, but I found pleasure in the elegant movements of Filipino martial arts. As I limped from the gym floor into the clumsiness of my college years, I began to shirk away from packed hallways and small classroom seats, not wanting to take up more physical space than what campus buildings allowed me. But on a Sunday afternoon at Coffee Culture, packed beyond fire code, I’d take whatever space I could get.
I unzipped my backpack and pulled out a pile of United States history books. After finishing an English degree, I naively thought I could find some reprieve from it by caring about the world “at large” and all its messy archives, ephemeral or canonical. Like historians did with History, capital H . So I mined the library stacks for what I thought were real issues like Liberalism , or The Making of some modern phenomenon.
Before I could break one of my texts open, I caught you looking at my ridiculous stack of books, past your own makeshift library. We chuckled nervously and began to chat. It turned out that we shared the same foolish dream, going to grad school south of the border. I asked you what you would study. Sociology . Something about statistics, interviews, a thing called ethnography. It all sounded like abstract and quantitative hooey. But what did I know, an applicant to a doctoral program in history, the discipline that turned dead people into notches on a timeline?
Almost every time we went out together, two things were involved: food and a camera. I don’t think I ever told you how vexatious that was for me. We’d rendezvous at the café once a week. Then maybe we’d smoke weed in the parking lot and you’d show me pictures from your camera. Then we’d drive to Federick Restaurant for Hakka food, then head down to Rouge Beach to take pictures and eat. Out of habit, I served you and our other friends twice as much food as was on my plate.
After so many years being too large to comfortably step into a picture frame, I tried to eat as little as possible. Just as you might calculate a scene’s proportions, I guesstimated the calories in every bit of food I ate, in the hopes that I could shrink enough to look like part of the backdrop. But as I watched you revel in the piping hot take-out containers, I didn’t want to hold my appetite back anymore. So I wolfed down the pakoras, reveling in their crunchy greasiness, and watched as your chopsticks dove into the Manchurian noodles.
You always brought a camera. Digital at first for stunning portraits of your skater friends, your girlfriend, or our hometown. Then you slowly coveted the grainy quality of a disposable. Even when you shoot with a nicer setup, you always bring it, because you never know when you want to remember something , you tell me. There is so much that leads to the shot. History, trauma, and, most of all, love.
Everything I had wanted to preserve of myself up to that point was in the form of words. I could write about everything—including you, right now—and archive it forever, without future generations being able to put a face and torso to the name. But you remind me that taking a photograph is a relationship . The closer we became, the more I let your images of me enter my imagined archive.
The closer we became, the more I let your images of me enter my imagined archive.
At times, I’d flit in and out of your frame to photobomb your landscape compositions. Half joking, half yearning to feel beautiful enough to not be a waste of a roll of film. When your lens did turn toward me, I felt the alienating anxiety that Roland Barthes, one of my favorite dead French guys, once wrote about. In portraits, we are at once the subjects for a future spectator and spectators ourselves. We extract our soul from our body when that shutter goes off. As Barthes mused about standing in front of a camera, he wondered, “ What does my body know of Photography?” But when you’d take a picture of me, I asked a different question: What does the photographer—what do you —know of my body?
I love your body, man , you’d tell me years later, when I fixated on my torso in one of your pictures of me. I remember that you didn’t want me to take it at first. But I wasn’t going to take no for an answer. You needed to see how I saw you.
A year later, soon after we both accepted our offers at the University of Toronto, we caught a glimpse of each other aboard a train, both drunk as fuck and out way too late. The commute back felt like a private oasis. Without thinking, jaws still sore from uproarious laughter, I took a selfie and we cackled at how bloodshot and squinty our eyes were. We’re going to be big, man , you said. Famous academics from the east end. On that drunken Scarborough RT ride, we didn’t look like the tweed-wearing and jargon-dropping types, but there we were, on our way to be doctors.
In our hometown, the only thing we were supposed to dream about was getting out of the hood. It might have been the alcohol, but despite all the self-doubt you and I had confided in each other, you painted a vibrant horizon wherein we could walk across the stage in our doctoral regalia together. In Convocation Hall, the speaker on the podium would call us one by one. Doctor De Leon . Doctor Pagaduan . Then, maybe on an academic panel, Professors De Leon and Pagaduan. As we laughed in the late-night train, squealing toward the smelly Midland Station recycling plant, the methane punched our noses into silence.
In our first two years of graduate school, we chose dissertation topics that made us confront our relationships with our bodies. I wrote about a history of Filipino food at a time when I forced myself to eat less of it. I always harbored some jealousy around your project on CrossFit. You had seemed so comfortable in pushing your body for hours with the ambition of writing about those experiences, to dive deep into an activity that gave you pleasure, not emotional whiplash. If only my body could move that way , I often thought to myself. I love your body , you’d tell me again, on a day when my mirror destroyed me. I didn’t believe you.
I think we yearned for longevity when we realized our institution was slowly destroying us. When I started my coursework and prepared for my comprehensive exams, I obsessively counted calories until I shed 140 pounds. I felt proud as my body shrank. I could walk confidently into the Massey College dining hall and disappear into the crowds.
I began to starve myself and subsisted on little but cheap red wine while skimming monographs into the night. The more my books consumed me, the more my body shrank, and I nearly vanished into the academy. When a close friend suddenly died one spring evening, it felt like all that tethered me to my body was a gossamer thread. Instead of grieving her properly, I did what my institutional disappearing act trained me to do: I wrote my exam.
When I told you this story, I didn’t expect how much you’d understand. In your journey into an ethnography of fitness, you thought you’d find joy in cultivating the best body you could muster up and admitted how self-serving that pursuit was. I noticed the defeatedness of your voice and the bags under your eyes. Your studies, like mine, nearly killed you. As I wrote that project, and read about the bodies before me, I began thinking about how to love my own.
Two years in, we changed our dissertation topics. Whereas we once wrote about our bodies, now we study to learn from our elders. On your end, you left the CrossFit gym to go on daily walks with elderly women. You moved and danced with them and wrote about aging in an immigrant suburb. I applied for grants and fellowships that would make me a historian of the Philippines. I learned my grandmother’s native language to imagine what global history looked like from my ancestral hinterland. Across the Pacific, I read old testimonies of lonely and exhausted migrant workers who wanted nothing more than to be back with their families, stories that resonated with me. As I wrote that project, and read about the bodies before me, I began thinking about how to love my own.
For all the dreaming that we did when we started our PhDs, we never did get to walk across that stage. We had both suffered from the unbearable whiteness of our departments. To deal with it, I rushed myself out of the program and lucked out with an amazing job as a professor in Southern California. In my hurry to chase this dream, I had to leave home, and you, behind. You took the opposite approach, slowing down to recover and centering your own wellness. I found myself envying you once again.
During my first year on the tenure track, I flew back home as much as I could to see you. It was in December 2019, my Christmas trip, that you took the black-and-white photo of me at 3 a.m., as we sat in a Chinese basement restaurant and imagined your future visit to Los Angeles that summer.
In March 2020, as the borders began to close, I flew back to Canada to take care of my family. Before the pandemic, I craved an opportunity to wear my best and dance in a club, hoping for the chance to feel comfortable in my body in a sea of people. More than three months later, during my last week in town and before work-visa requirements forced me to wear a makeshift hazmat suit to fly back to LA, I had reached a tipping point. I desperately wanted to be around the people I love, our bodies in whatever shape they needed to take in order to survive.
So you picked me up in your SUV, masks and gloves on, still unsure if our sharing space would spell out the end of our lives. On the shores of Lake Ontario, we sat near the dying bonfire a family left behind. In our pandemic musings, we traced into the sand a kinder future where we could see each other again if we were both alive. When we started reminiscing on a pre-Covid era that seemed far away, I found myself checking the calendar, forgetting what day and month it was: late June, the summer you were supposed to visit. It had been over half a year since you and I had seen each other, half a year since we danced like fools on West Queen West. Half a year since that photo.
Before you dropped me home, you took a picture of me in front of a graffiti wall. I turned my head, still unable to look into the camera. I suddenly became aware of my belly, which grew larger during the pandemic, stretching the fabric of my crewneck. But this might be the last photo you take of me for a long time. We didn’t know if we would be alive the next time we shared space, so I let myself feel like a model again, if only for a brief moment. I smiled.
The next day, before I left for the airport, you gave me your camera.
In LA, everything demands to see and be seen. But I often feel out of place when I try to compose a shot in Silver Lake. When everyone seems to have never broken their gym routines during a stay-at-home order, I feel momentary shame at the thirty-something pounds I gained this year. But this is the body that is getting me through a pandemic, and for that, I am grateful.
So, Adrian , I imagine you telling me, there might be another perspective . And you might be right: Perhaps it’s homesickness that makes me hesitate in my photo walks now. Instead of verdant ravines, I shoot half-dried palm trees. In place of our intimate Lake Ontario beach, I have Malibu and its endless sands, white as the people who hogged up every last bit of breathing space. And instead of you, I only have your Minolta.
I don’t take pictures of people. What if they felt the same way about their bodies as I did? What if they wanted to feel small too? If my back is being nice, I contort to take abstract pictures with the ochre of Spanish colonial roofs, the gray scaffolding of some new condo, and the endless cerulean sky. Usually, I drive around to a location I know: an incline on Hyperion, toward the bright buildings of Echo Park, or up at the reservoir that shimmers every evening. By the water, I take a picture of the mountains glowing in the sunset.
(You’ll recognize them from the images I sent you.)
I try to practice with the camera you gave me because it’s the closest thing to our walks in Morningside Park together. Maybe I could send a self-portrait that might leave you breathless, the way your Scarborough pictures do to me. Maybe after the pandemic, I could drive out to go camping, leave a long-exposure out all night, and show you how the stars move in Southern California. And maybe, in the process, I could learn why you thought me beautiful enough that night to take a picture of me.