Monday, May 25, 2015

Photographs steal souls, don’t they?

I didn't steal her soul :)
“ My friend, why should you wish to shorten my life by taking from me my shadow?”  - To photographer Dr. Valentine T. McGillycuddy. ( Crazy Horse (Tasunka Witko), Leader of the Oglala Sioux, b. 1849, Lakota lands, d. 1877, Fort Robinson, Nebraska).
Photography appeared in the 19th century and it was a miracle; people were amazed that the machine was able to capture such a vivid reflection of their own self on a glass plate or a piece of paper.

 “According to Balzac’s theory, all physical bodies are made up entirely of layers of ghostlike images, an infinite number of leaflike skins laid on top of one another. Since Balzac believed man was incapable of making something material from an apparition—that is, creating something from nothing—he concluded that every time someone had his photograph taken, one of the spectral layers was removed from the body and transferred to the photograph. Repeated exposures entailed the unavoidable loss of subsequent ghostly layers, that is, the very essence of life.” (Nadar)
“Because daguerreotypes were rendered on a mirrored surface, many spiritualists also became practitioners of the new art form. Spiritualists would claim that the human image on the mirrored surface was akin to looking into one’s soul. The spiritualists also believed that it would open their souls and let demons in. Aborigines believed that taking one's picture took part of one’s soul away” (read more here).

So the idea (or a myth) that a photograph of a person “steals one’s soul” seems like a pre-technological fear born of simple ignorance.
Tribal cultures believe a person’s soul is stolen when they’re photographed and even today some Native Americans and Aborigines of Australia refuse to be photographed.

Soul  is  “the spiritual part of a person that is believed to give life to the body and in many religions is believed to live forever”.

So if a person believes in “soul” (in its religious meaning), it’s impossible to imagine that a body will live without a soul. Does it mean that taking a photograph will provoke a person’s death? If we proceed from the assumption that a photograph of a person “steals one’s soul” and that it’s impossible to live without a soul we should answer in the affirmative to this question. But there are no such facts on record to support this assumption.

There are some other questions with reference to this theme.
 Does a person taking a self-portrait steal his/her own soul? 
Photo is “an image created by light falling on a light-sensitive surface, usually photographic film or an electronic medium such as a CCD or a CMOS chip”. However the person’s light (or energy, or a soul) can be captured not only with the help of a camera, i.e. automatically. Long ago artists painted very realistic images of people onto paper or canvas using a camera obscura or camera lucida (read more here and here).
Many photos of planet Earth were taken from space vehicles. Does it mean that they stole the sole of the whole mankind?
Many ancient cultures have had conceptions of a flat Earth, but who nowadays believes that if you go so far you would fall off the edge? People overcame their superstitions and prejudices in many spheres, so what about photography?

Today when cell phones, digital cameras are common things, many of Aboriginal people don’t refuse to take pictures. Actually, they recognize that a camera can be an important witness to the events of their life.

Today the phrase “stealing one’s soul” probably has the meaning “violating one’s boundaries”. A person may not believe that someone is stealing his/her soul if they take his/her picture, but this person might not want a stranger to take a picture simply because he/she wishes the privacy preserved.

 Surely if you’re asked not to take pictures, it’s unwise to ignore the request. This is offence against good manners to photograph people who object. You might want to explain people your purposes. If your subjects have a better understanding of why it’s important to you to take a photo, you may be able to find common ground.

Even some photographers agree with the idea of “stealing souls”.

“ I just think it’s important to be direct and honest with people about why you’re photographing them and what you’re doing. After all, you are taking some of their soul, and I think you have to be clear about that.” (Mary Ellen Mark)

But more photographers have another standpoint.

“ I try to photograph people’s spirits and thoughts. As to the soul-taking by the photographer, I don’t feel I take away, but rather that the sitter and I give to each other. It becomes an act of mutual participation.” (Yousuf Karsh)
“I returned to the big city with thousands of images. I only hope that what I’ve brought are photographs with soul, and not souls in my photographs.” (Ricardo Moraes)

And my favorite quote is:
“If each photograph steals a bit of the soul, isn’t it possible that I give up pieces of mine every time I take a picture?” ( Richard Avedon)

I suppose if a photo is with a soul, the photographer has done a good job.

Thank you for reading! Stay tuned!