A Picture Worth a Thousand Tears

When I was 17, our church hosted a photographer for family photos to update the church directory. My mom’s handwriting held our family’s date and time on the kitchen calendar. My mom told me that pictures would be taken on Thursday afternoon and that I needed to be ready to go. I made sure to take off work that day so I could be ready for our directory photo.

I picked out a semi-casual outfit, one I had also used for my senior pictures. When it was time to head to church for the photo session, I got in the back seat of the car—the only place I was ever allowed to sit. I don’t recall my dad and three brothers being at home when we left, so I guessed they would meet us there. The 20-minute drive to church seemed “normal.” My mom didn’t talk to me, and I didn’t dare say a word to her.

Our car entered the church parking lot, drove up to the building where pictures were being taken, and my mom told me in a stern voice to “get inside.” I was confused. Maybe she didn’t want to be seen walking in with me, or maybe she was going to park the car and then come in. To my awful surprise, as I walked into the big brick building, I didn’t see anyone besides the photographer sitting behind a table with a stack of papers. He asked me my name, looked it up in his paperwork, and said, with a confused tone, “Okay, so it’s just you?”

“Wait, what?” I thought in my head, but I didn’t dare say it out loud. My mind and heart were racing. Where were the five other people in my family? The photographer could read the confusion and shock written on my face. He spoke in a weak and quiet tone: “I’m sorry, but the rest of your family was in earlier today for pictures together.”

I felt the shameful, unbearable punch to my gut.

I did all I could to hold back the tears, and I detached from the grief and shock that was rushing through my body. The photographer was a younger man who didn’t know how to hold all that was shattering before his eyes. I said, “Let’s just get this done and take the photo.” He led me over to the stool, shifted me on a swivel chair, and took a handful of photos. He talked in a soft tone and was trying to separate from all he had just seen. We both tried to act as if nothing was wrong. I needed to hold it in, dare I let tears ruin the picture of me sitting alone in front of the camera. I knew that if the tears came, they wouldn’t stop, and I couldn’t afford to go there.

The directory was released a few weeks later, and to my shock and grief, there was a picture of my mom and dad together, a picture of my three brothers together, and a picture of me, alone. This is how they covered up the dehumanizing and shameful act. It was simultaneously clever and horrific.

The picture in the directory casts me outside the family. I am isolated and separated, not only from my parents but also from my brothers. It didn’t have to be this way, and it shouldn’t have ever been this way.

What stings even more is that shortly after this, I found a picture at our home of the five of them together. They not only took family photos for the directory, but also purchased a canvas and prints of the picture. There are no words. There is much to lament.

To deliberately take a family photo and leave a member of the family out of it is a symbol of erasure, hatred, and cruelty. To be forced outside the lines by my own parents and family holds a wound that pounds with ache and pain.

Sandhya Oaks is a ministry leader, spiritual director, writer, and speaker. She is fiercely committed to inviting people to curiosity and possibility through hosting Kintsugi Story Workshops and Story Retreats. She is one who brings light to dark places and invites others to courageously do the same. She is a Transracial Adoptee with Pakistani and Indian roots, and her joys include traveling, gathering around the table, and water sports. You can find more of her good work at Sandhyaoaks.com.