There are just these little things that a camera lens can reveal about a person. Things that they don’t want anyone else to see. And when you’re the one with the camera, you tend to fade into the background. You get to be part of the world without having to be a part of the world.
Exactly how I like it.
I’ve always preferred working with film, something about the way it captures light feels so alive. The first time I ever printed photos, I was ten. Now, seven years later, the carefully controlled process is practically embedded into each line on my palms, and I go through the motions with ease. It’s just as practiced as taking the photos themselves, the comforting familiarity of creating something new. Revealing hidden truths in a way that only the process of exposure can achieve.
But unlike ten-year-old Iyanu in the makeshift darkroom that Mum, Dad, and I put together in our tiny downstairs bathroom, I’m now in the Wodebury Hall photography lab, surrounded by stainless steel surfaces laden with expensive tools and devices.
Adjusting my glasses, I peg a photo up onto the drying line behind me and consider the perspective in the red glow of the gently buzzing safety light. It’s a picture I’d taken yesterday of the matchmaking event we’d held in the fields behind Wodebury House, the main school building.
Despite being a frigid Friday evening in late January, we’d had a great turnout. In the photo, a good chunk of the Year Twelve boarders and some of my fellow day students stand bundled up among the trees in stylish knit jumpers and tweed coats like outfits straight out of a designer winter collection.
And most of them probably are.
Each round of the matchmaking event had one contestant and twelve potential matches. They were asked specifically themed questions on everything from favorite color to relationship dealbreakers. After each question, the matches were eliminated based on their answers until there was only one person left.
I glance over the photo again, scanning the faces of every person on the stage. The lens reveals their stories, the slight nervousness concealed behind their beaming expressions, and anticipation glimmers in the eyes of the students who came to watch.
A committee of Year Twelve students always puts together the Valentine’s Day Ball for Year Twelves and Year Thirteens that will be happening in two weeks, and I’d been unexpectedly nominated to the group by our head of year to oversee all photography matters. And when this matchmaking event had been proposed as a fun way for us Year Twelve students to find dates for said ball, I’d been the only person on the committee who didn’t see the point of it.
However, as each couple was matched throughout the evening, the point quickly became clear: conflict and drama. Which can be entertaining: everyone loves a good soapy spectacle. But it’s exactly the kind of situation I’d normally avoid for the sake of my own mental health.
Once I set the final matchmaking print to rinse for a few minutes, I’m eager to pour over the images I’d rather be working on instead. So I hurry over to the cubby shelf where I’d kept my things.
I grab my film negative binder and a magnifying glass, then quickly flip to the pages where I’d stored my negatives from the Black Girls Winter Fair.
Warmth fills my chest.
The fair had taken place in London last weekend, and I’d been staring at the negatives every chance I could this entire week, anticipating the moment when I could finally print my favorites. Unfortunately, the matchmaking photos needed to take priority.
The photo rinse timer starts beeping when I get to the final one, the image distorted by the glaze of unshed tears around my eyes. I ignore the sound, staring at the image for a little longer with an achingly wide smile.
It was the best moment of the entire weekend. I was heading out of the fair when I’d spotted my favorite writer, Kia Rose, an amazing photojournalist and professor of Black women’s history.
After building up the courage to speak to her, she’d let me take a photo of her standing in front of the Wall of Messages; the place where my own tear-stained note was pinned up alongside those of the other fair attendees with messages of love about their time spent that weekend.
I’d already planned to use these photos for my WeCreate article—the final stage in the application process for the online magazine’s photojournalist position. But seeing Kia Rose that day felt like fate.
I’d discovered the magazine in Year Seven, marveling at the space created by queer women of color writing about their passions and experiences. The first issue I’d ever read was guest edited by Kia Rose, and I can never forget that feeling of being so completely seen, even though my eleven-year-old self hadn’t fully processed the importance of having a safe haven away from Wodebury’s halls. Now that I do, I just need to write about it, that same feeling captured here in every image I’d taken at the fair: Black women celebrating in community.
Nervous anticipation rushes down my spine, followed by a twinge of desperation.
The job is perfect anyway, but I also just need it. Wodebury giving me a bursary to cover the fees to study here is one thing, but the upkeep of being here is another—I wouldn’t even be able to afford the ticket to the Valentine’s Day Ball if I didn’t have a discount as a committee member. I need as much extra income as I can get.
My thoughts are interrupted by several successive dings of text notifications.
I quickly return the negative strip to the binder and head back to the processing station, grateful for my phone’s darkroom filter as I open up the messages.
Saturday 8.07 P.M.
no, i won’t stop pouting! you’d feel the exact same way if you had a dream match and that happened to you 🙁
i just wish Jordan didn’t leave . . . Mr. Leighton said everyone on the committee had to take part yesterday, i needed the plausible deniability
Navin had only joined the committee to keep me from being alone with the “popular crew,” but he’d spent most of his time subtly eyeing Jordan.
Another message comes in, and I laugh at the selfie of Navin’s pouting face. The soft pink gloss on his lips shines perfectly against his light bronze skin, and from the background, it seems like he’s returned to his dorm room in Roweton House.
Navin—and access to this darkroom—are my saving graces here at Wodebury Hall. He’d spent most of his early life shuttling between England, Bangladesh, and another boarding school in Spain before arriving at Wodebury Hall in Year Nine. His mum, the owner of a multimillion-dollar international architecture firm that builds large-scale city projects, was born and raised in Bangladesh, while his dad is Bengali and white British aristocracy. So Navin and his father stand to inherit an estate from Navin’s grandfather, who he often describes as “an old white man who means well but is still an old white man.”
but you know what? here’s a wild idea, what if you just *ask* Jordan to the ball?
Navin’s response comes in immediately, and I chuckle.
i hate you
i just want to tell him how pretty he is . . . but like, i also never want to tell him how pretty he is
The words hit a little too close to home, and I hurriedly ignore the face they conjure up, the memories threatening at the edge of my mind.
you love me, i’m your favorite person 😃
unfortunately . . .
I laugh gleefully at the voice note that follows of a deep resigned sigh.
i love you
Smirking, I put the phone down, only to have the mirth disappear at the sight of the completed image staring back at me in the rinse.
I’d purposefully left this photo for last because I hadn’t wanted to take it in the first place.
There are only three subjects. My cousin Kitan Ladipo and her two best friends, Sarah Pelham and Heather Seymour-Cavendish. The trio stand in their default pose with Heather in the center, her green eyes glinting in the reflection of the large bonfire lit for the matchmaking event.
I can still hear Heather’s annoyingly saccharine tone asking me to take the photo of them. She’d walked up to me, dripping with the type of confidence that can only come from believing that no one would ever deny you anything.
And as an earl’s daughter, most people never dare.
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Excerpt from EVERYONE’S THINKING IT published by Balzer and Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2023 by Aleema Omotoni.