Getting my picture taken is not my favourite thing to do, not by a long shot. As a result, in a mission of mercy to find a handful of decent lifetime shots of me from the stack of plastic bins that house the ancient history of all of my family’s occasions, you’d likely have room left over in your mitt for something bulky like say – a turkey. Although photos apparently don’t lie, I’m pretty sure they don’t tell the whole truth either.
So, since I’m one of those people who’ve racked up a bit of laugh-out-loud renown for what could be called epic camera unfriendliness, I think some detective work might be in order. For a bit of perspective, I’m a reasonably attractive sort – averagely endowed in the looks department most days for a woman of a certain age, and the overall temperature of the gene pool that I come from isn’t half bad either. So what’s with the secreted away collection of photos of myself, marking occasions that can no longer be spoken of aloud, lying taunting, entombed in Tupperware? It would seem like sacrilege to throw them out for what they’re supposed to represent and don’t, yet I’d like to and maybe should. The general consensus by those given a special friend pass to open the lid of my Pandora’s box of snap shots, and an accompanying glass of wine while they do, is that my collection of them prove that photographs do in fact steal the soul, since mine is clearly away, likely being pawned, in a lot of them.
I spent a fair number of years working in front of the camera as a photographic stylist, finagling food, products, and models of both sexes, into captured-forever moments of contrived perfection. Working with models was a particular eye opener as to what makes a good photograph. They’d arrive in the early morning for a shoot – tall, thin, blank canvases, looking nothing like the beautiful people they could be made up to become from the pages of their book – the proof that got them the booking in the first place. There was a willingness to be shaped that they brought along in that big bag of stuff they carried, tucked behind elastic bands nondescriptly holding back pony tailed hair from bare, symmetrical faces waiting for the paint and light and dark to be applied that would make them pop onto the set. They knew their job was to be malleable as clay, to become whatever and whomever, and the camera loved them for it.
No one was worried about souls running amok at these shoots. It was dress-up fantasia and everyone was on the same page about what reasons had brought us together in the first place. As a result, models’ souls weren’t nabbed – at least by photographs – since this vital force we’re talking about never left the hair and make-up room, where I imagine their souls remained, playing cards to pass the time, until the slender bodies of their owners returned to claim them.
But in real life, there are noteworthy differences between those who take a good photo and those, ahem, who do not, and it doesn’t have as much to do with how stunning the raw material is or isn’t, as one might think. People who feel a sense of relaxed play in front of the camera seem to fair much better than those, like me, who feel only a version of themselves is being captured for posterity, a mere moment of their mortal uncoiling trapped by flimflam lenses and mirrors, producing negatives not even close to the whole picture of them. What feels like robbery may be the sense of loss over one’s essence not fully coming through – a nagging feeling of being slightly short-changed too much of the time. If that’s the soul, being unremorsefully lifted with light-on-the-shutter-fingers, then, no wonder so many of us old souls aren’t over the moon with the results showing up in our pictures.
Indigenous people, since the invention of the camera, have had a version of the same thought.
Native Americans and Indigenous Australian tribesmen believed that taking a photograph stole the soul, and disrespected the spirit world, ever since the camera was first carted into their lands by adventurers hoping to ‘take’ their pictures. The Kayapo Tribe, of the Brazilian Amazon, for instance, use the words akaron kaba to mean both photograph and steal the soul, synonymously. Lakota warrior, Crazy Horse allegedly never allowed himself to be photographed while alive, yet some photographs purporting to be of him, can be found floating around the internet. In Chiapas, Mexico, it’s to this day, illegal to take photographs in church and doing so offers up jail time for those who attempt it – all for the purpose of keeping theft-susceptible, church-going souls properly fused to the bodies they were originally assigned.
It’s all about the mirrors.
Across many cultures, the soul is thought to be made up of light while the word, photography, from the Greek literally means, drawing of light. Mirrors appear to play a major role in the concern some indigenous people have had and some still do have, with photography and can be traced to Mayan culture, where mirrors played an important cultural and religious role, since they were considered to be portals to the other world. Photographs were considered mirrors with a memory, and cameras through the ages have used mirrors as part of their mechanisms that can still be found in SLR and digital SLR cameras today.
On the photographic subject end of things, all living things give off Infrared Invisible Light, or IF, light energy. If someone pointed an IF thermometer at you, your IF radiation levels could be read, using that little device. So, if the soul is made up of infrared light, mustn’t our light-filled souls radiate in a variety of ever changing frequencies, readable to other humans; animals too – that photos have the ability to capture? So if the truth of us is that we’re always changing in frequency, and that our thoughts dial our frequency, up or down – maybe deep thinkers in matters such as these, don’t like being summed up for being this or that, or pinned down to look like this, or look like that in any given moment, for a very good reason. The whole picture of us just can’t be caught in one shot wonderment.
We humble photographic subjects remain hopeful that a truthful representation of us comes through the camera lens of that so-called impartial device, which is why we keep allowing our pictures to be taken over and over in the first place. But the camera is only impartial about mirroring the exact likeness to our frequency in any given microsecond, based on what we’re thinking right then and there. So, our cockeyed optimism over “surely this will be a great shot” is why plastic tubs containing success and failure-ridden photographic tries are needed in the first place. How a mere camera, captor of two-dimensional imagery has a hope in hell of bagging ever-changing, multi-dimensional, ball of light essences is a feat in of itself. No wonder it’s rarely accomplished.
Maybe all this deep thinking is the death knell to having a good photo taken come to think of it, since I think about not liking that darn contraption, or having to say cheese, or whiskey when forced to assume the position in front of a lens. I’ll try thinking something more helpful to the cause next time, to loosen things up. Perhaps I’ll think of England.
Maybe it’s our own narcissism that has the soul heading for the hills, not theft by camera at all. Take for instance, the camera as weapon an army of us not so smartphoners choose, to shore up a vapid, two-dimensional reality – a misplacement of soul by selfie at the very least, because it’s not yet known what’s at stake with this quantum effigy overuse of ours. We film ourselves and film others and we watch these images for clues as to who we really are and where we really fit, and appear to come up short for answers each time, judging from the staggering number of people suffering from depression and anxiety. We compare our actions, movements, hairstyles to something shown us, of who we are from outside of ourselves, while we micromanage our image, form, and size until it conforms to the homogeneity that is understandable to the lowest common denominator of non-thinker, or so it seems. If that’s not soul robbery, what is?
“It is from the deadest places inside ourselves that we take most of our photographs.” John Rosenthal
That sentence was taken from a beautiful article I stumbled across while doing my research. Written in 1983, writer/photographer, John Rosenthal, recounts an event in New York’s Central Park, that changed him as a photographer forever. He’d been strolling around looking for shots for several hours when he happened upon an elderly women sitting on a park bench, covered in birds, appearing to have a personal relationship with each one she chatted with, and fed. She was quite a character and he was of course, drawn to take her picture but held back, choosing to watch her and try to understand more about her. But while he watched from a distance, several tourists walked up to her and took her picture. She screamed back at them that they had no right to do this and questioned whether they were going to pay her for taking her picture, so that she could pay for feed for her birds. They got what they wanted and simply walked away, back to their Midwestern lives, Rosenthal supposed, muttering about how New York sure is a place filled with oddballs. He went on the write, “What our tourist was trying to take home with him was a real old lady in a park who had been converted into a two-dimensional joke. Uncurious about the real woman, he snaps her picture to validate the normality of his own life. She has become exotic to him because nothing else is. It is from the deadest places inside ourselves that we take most of our photographs.”
That’s what I’m talking about.
Rosenthal also wrote, “This is the high-speed American with high-speed film taking a quick snap of an actual woman as if she was a weird-looking building or a pretty sunset”. Clearly, we’re so focused on photo opps that our soul radar is on the fritz. Maybe it’s just rusty, from lack of use.
So maybe early Native peoples just saw what was coming down the pipeline when it came to larceny of the soul. Ancient people after all, have the best memories about how younger souls tend to act when they don’t think straight, or at all.