On Photography And Soul Theft
Commonplace Newsletter #34
Welcome readers to the latest always free Sunday essay from Thomas J Bevan.
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In my little writing space- which is a converted boiler cupboard with a ladder desk and an ergonomic swivel chair and rows of ring binders containing my commonplace and manuscripts and essay drafts and correspondence- there is a cork board.
On this cork board I pin index cards. The cards have ideas scrawled upon them- the handwriting being atrocious as ideas have a way of striking you during the night or post-nap or in the pre-dawn, or some other time when you are not alert enough to be concerned with such things as legibility.
These cards, which contain fragments of story plots or essay topics, remain pinned to the board for weeks or months at a time (they remind me of those macabre boards that butterfly collectors display). They remain pinned in place until it suddenly becomes time to take them down and turn them into something real.
Today one card called to me for reasons I can’t explain. Its time had come. The card, like all the others, went unnoticed until it didn’t. And what it said, if I can decipher my own chicken-scratch is this:
‘Photos steal souls? Natives correct? Why?’
So let’s take that semi-gibberish and see if we can’t turn it into something interesting today.
Keokuk, Sauk chief, 1847- Thomas Easterley. Doesn’t look too thrilled about the whole thing, does he?
A Snapshot Of The Issue
I think it was something I first heard in school, one of those little anecdotal factoids that blurs the line between actual fact, received wisdom and spurious made-up nonsense.
And that is this: That in tribal societies and among Native People’s there is a widespread fear, revulsion and distrust towards photography because it is believed that when you take someone’s photograph you also take their soul.
Now to us tech-savvy Westerners this strikes us as palpable nonsense (whether we choose to be tech savvy or not is largely an irrelevancy. At this point it doesn’t feel as if we do have much choice in the matter. Progress marches on.)
Cameras obviously have no capacity to do this. They are not like the foot switch operated traps that the Ghostbusters used. Cameras take the scientific fact that light refracting through glass changes the speed of it and they use this to create a replication of the light image in question. Clever yes, but not magical and certainly not malevolent.
But the idea of this soul-stealing resonates. At least with me. Hence why it popped into my head and made its way to the index card. There is something to it.
While not literally true in the provable, logical and frankly more than a little boring way that our Scientism-driven current society likes things to be, I think this idea as an idea, as a metaphor is worth considering.
The tribesman’s fear, especially in the early days of the camera, was a fear of the unknown, a fear of the new.
Consider seeing a waistcoated and moustachioed Victorian explorer-type ambling up to your village with his bivouac and his daguerreotype. Now imagine that man using his magical light box to create an exact rendering of your likeness on paper. That’s terrifying. The only analogy I can think of to drive this home would be to imagine experiencing a spaceship landing in your neighbourhood and the aliens then greeting you and showing you their extraterrestrial tech.
A little reticence and apprehension in that scenario would be forgivable, I would say.
And ‘primitive’ societies, being less blinded by science, conceive of things in spiritual terms. That’s the language they use, the pool of metaphors that they draw from. Soul not meaning soul per se, but perhaps standing in as a phrase to mean an essence or a part of ourselves.
So what they might have been trying to articulate was that the capturing of a persons likeness in a photograph takes something from them which might otherwise have been kept intact and unspoiled.
(I should note that the very fact that photographs of tribal elders exist shows that this belief was not universal or formally prescribed by the implicit spiritual doctrines of the tribes.
I should further note that as always we are playing with ideas for fun here. In part of my research for this piece I read an unremittingly tedious piece of modern scepticism which tried to factually disprove the tribesmans hunch by dropping all sorts of ‘gotcha’s’ about the nature of light and xrays and stereoscopes and such. I can’t in good faith link to it as this fedora-donning ‘enquiry’ was as joyless as a Guantanamo Bay style internment camp where the sensory torture consists of piped-in Richard Dawkins interviews as opposed to the standard eardrum shattering heavy metal loops.
We deal with feelings here and fun and levity and living the good life. You can go elsewhere for your quota of dry rationality.
So metaphorically I think the tribesmans hunch is right. Photography does take something from you.
Ghosts and Graven Images
It’s a sensation that you experience as you get older. And it’s a most peculiar one. You start to see ghosts.
Through photographs and through home video and cinema you see the dead walk around. Humphrey Bogart died in 1957 but I can see brief snatches of his life that have been captured and edited and released as stories, as movies. We take this for granted but it’s weird when you think about it. A dead man, frozen in time, having the same shootouts and cracking wise with the same dames whenever we push a button. Whenever we want, for as long as at least some copies of the movies in some format survive.
And further, I can hunt through drawers and computer files and look at pictures of my Grandmother and Grandfather and other relatives now gone, and see them frozen in time, younger than I am now. And because there are photographs of me that exists (though I share much of the tribesmans distrust of the medium) the same is true for me. When I’m gone will some friend, some relative skim photos of my own young self and feel that slight twinge of the uncanny?
Collective and family memory is oral. It is shared stories passed down, which like Chinese whispers surely modify and distort as the generations of retelling accumulate. And when the memory is of someone you have personally met and known they become integrated into your own consciousness and your own being and as the person is re-remembered and as the indignities of age decay and distort the memory, the person changes for you. This is the human experience.
But photographs are permanent. They can decay like tape decays but they lack this interpretive mechanism. They are what they are. A bad photograph stays embarrassing no matter what your memory of the person was, or if it is of yourself what your memory of your life at that moment was like.
Photographs externalise the internal.
And perhaps on some level the tribal people understood this. In the same way that the Amish and other Christian sects might see photographs as a violation of the commandment against graven images perhaps the primitive revulsion towards photography has more sophistication than we give it credit for.
Is the second commandment merely God laying down a No Competition Clause or does it signify a subtle understanding of human psychology and the fact that externalising likenesses will make you prey to worldly and mimetic and an ultimately destructive and (if you like) non-godly self-image. In photographing ourselves do we make gods of ourselves in the stead of the one that spoke to Moses?
I think the rise of photography and video has afforded us a pretty clear answer to this.
The Selfie And The World
Again- and I know this can be taken as a cop out- we are playing with ideas here. We’re partaking of a little light philosophy without the usual accoutrements of dry language games and Ivory Towerism and psychoactive substances.
The Trolley Problem is not a problem because you would never in the real world allow yourself to be put into a situation where such a decision has to be made. Real life is not a Tony Scott movie.
But I digress.
Belief in a soul or not, believe in God or not, belief in the value of technological progress or not, I think it’s undeniable that selfie-taking does something to you. The same as posting rambling diatribes on social media, which in most cases function as merely thought-selfies for the unphotogenic.
The selfie makes you externalise the self in the way that the photograph taken by another merely externalises your image. When you start taking and especially posting photographs of your self you begin to start seeing your self through the eyes of the other, through the eyes of the crowd. It mediates how your present yourself, how you conceive of yourself, how you orient yourself in the world.
Things become performative and for the eyes of the Other. You are more self-conscious, lighting and angle savvy, you are far more likely to be ‘on’ at all times and ready to be photographed.
The world itself becomes a succession of backdrops for staged projections of your imagined best self. The Taj Mahal, The Eiffel Tower, The Pyramids at Giza become distant background signifiers that hover somewhere behind your shoulder. The internal and the quiet inner life of the secret self atrophies as the surface becomes ever more important and prominent.
You are now a narcissist, the opposite of what pretty much every spiritual tradition holds up as the model of an enlightened being.
The camera has taken your soul.
The tribesman weeps a single tear.
Until next time,
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