I’ve been known to have some out-of-the-ordinary religious beliefs and ideas, an amalgamation of things I like and things I make up off the top of my head. There was the time I was going to worship the sun, and the time I was going to refuse to vote for religious reasons, and most recently, when I decided that the afterlife consisted of being shown pictures in which you are accidentally in the background. I always look at my pictures and see people in the background, who I captured on film rather unintentionally. I wonder how many strangers have pictures of me, though I am not the main focus of the photo. I decided that all this must mean something, and that when you die you are presented with all of those strangers’ photos where you are in the background, or the blurry person to the left, or the bypasser on the sidewalk. That will be the reflection of a life well-lived–not how many pictures you took of yourself and put on Facebook, but what you were doing when you did not know you were being photographed. It will be like seeing your entire life from the perspective of someone else, except that someone else happens to be thousands of strangers who shared space with you, took pictures of you, but never knew you. And I have to imagine that those accidental pictures will reveal more about the life you led than any posed photograph ever could.
Last night a tourist threw a kink in my belief system. There I was, biking back from Dutch class, my bags awkwardly swung over my shoulder, when I came to a red light by the main tourist street in Amsterdam. I look to my right and see a group of guys with their backpacks and cameras at-the-ready, waiting to document every aspect of the city. I look straight, watching the numbers on the red light count down. Out of the corner of my eye, I see one of the men take a picture of me and walk away. The light turns green and I must go.
The whole ride home I thought about what that picture meant. I know he took it because he must have thought I was Dutch (which is obviously not so considering I was stopped at the red light–something Dutch people generally don’t do), and I know he wanted to take that picture to the people back home and show them that people in Amsterdam really do ride bikes everywhere, but it made me feel weird to know that some guy, who I will never see again in my whole life, has a picture of me on his camera. He doesn’t even know it is a false picture–that I’m not Dutch, and that I’m about as representative of biking in Amsterdam as I am of walking on the moon. I remember hearing stories in school of indigenous tribes who thought that a camera stole a part of their souls each time a picture was taken of them, and for the first time I can relate to their fears, which seemed so unfounded to my Western, camera-happy mindset before.
I do not think that tourist stole my soul, but he owns an image of me over which I have no control. While biking home, I did that thing I always do after something happens that upsets me or throws me off guard. I thought of all the things I should have said or should have done at that moment, finally settling upon the most clever, witty, stinging remark I can think of, and then I imagine saying it to him when he took that picture. Here’s how it would go: He would come up, take that picture, and instead of biking on, I would turn to him and say, “Wil je gaan?” which in my pigeon Dutch means something to the effect of, “Do you want to go?” Because he won’t know Dutch, it will not matter that it’s probably grammatically incorrect and sounds nothing like how a Dutch person would talk. He won’t know what I said, and he will say, “What?” and I will say, “Do you want to go for a ride?” And in his embarrassment of being caught taking my picture and then being offered to ride on the back of a girl’s bike, his face will become red and he will shake his head and he will shamefully walk away, with his friends heckling him the whole time. And I won’t mind that he doesn’t delete the picture, because at that moment he will know who I am, and there will be a story behind the picture, and I will be more than an abstraction of Amsterdam.
But because I can’t go back in time and wrest that part of my soul from the man’s camera, I can only wonder what effect this will have on my afterlife. I wonder if his picture will be there in the stack of my accidental photos, which it might because he is a stranger to me, but it might not because I knew he was taking it. I instead would like to think that after I die, while I am looking through all the pictures I was accidentally in, the man will come up to me and we will get to know each other and he will apologize for taking my picture without asking and I will tell him that I really didn’t mind because now we are friends and friends have pictures of their friends. And then we will laugh about how he spent his entire life thinking he had a genuine picture of a Dutch girl on a bicycle.