Save our Souls: Can a Photograph Steal What is No Longer There?

  • Soul (noun) – 1. The spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal, regarded as immortal. 2. A person’s moral or emotional nature or sense of identity.

Currently, we live in a camera culture. What used to be a big box perched atop a hefty tripod is now a pinhole in the back of our cellphone, or perched in a waterproof case atop our ski helmets. Cameras are everywhere capturing nearly every moment of our lives.

Soulless
Dave Barnes Illustration

By Crease Mansbridge

It wasn’t always so. We used to think cameras could steal our souls. Cultures around the globe used to avoid being photographed. Native war leader Crazy Horse would not allow anyone to take his picture, not even at his own funeral. Ancient Egyptian and Greek cultures believed our reflections were an outward projection of our souls staring back at us. The superstition about breaking a mirror and suffering seven years of bad luck derives from this – if your reflection is broken, a piece of your soul is lost.

“The superstition about breaking a mirror and suffering seven years of bad luck derives from this – if your reflection is broken, a piece of your soul is lost.”

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Many Central American churches forbid photography within their walls. The tradition stems from Mayans beliefs that when we pray to saints or ancestors our souls would travel to them. A camera may prevent those parts of our souls from returning back. All these cultures saw the soul as something worth protecting and cherishing. All were cautious of where it could become lost or trapped.

Times have changed.

But if any of those old beliefs are true, are we now truly all soulless? Perhaps it’s a different problem now – we send “selfies” to each other on our phones and ensure to capture all the most exciting recreational moments of our day via helmet cam. We witness the most important moments of our human lives – the birth of a child, the wedding of two friends, a Beastie Boys concert – through the 3”x2” LCD screens of our phones or point-and-shoots. Then we upload all these cherished moments and ideas (and pictures of our lunch) to the Internet in attempts to convince the rest of the world we have value, we exist. Big Brother is not watching, he is us. Cameras don’t steal our souls, we give them away freely.

“We upload all these cherished moments and ideas (and pictures of our lunch) to the Internet in attempts to convince the rest of the world we have value, we exist. Big Brother is not watching, he is us. Cameras don’t steal our souls, we give them away freely.”

But what about those photos that leave us speechless, breathless, or bring tears to our eyes? What of those simple pictures holding worlds of emotion? The essence of photography is documenting the feeling in a single moment, freeze-framing the symbiotic interaction of two or more things.

Maybe a picture can steal a soul, and maybe too many pictures can give your soul away but a great photograph, a true piece of art, can actually capture the soul of any moment shared between friends, nature, light, and life. Great photos, and the soul held within them, can live forever.

 


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