The Bleeding Edge Premiere Column: The Art of Stealing Souls
(by WeddingPhotographyDirectory.com Columnist: William Bobos)
The religious belief that a photograph can steal a soul, imprisoning it within its amalgam of polyester, celluloid, salts and gelatin (or perhaps a CCD if you are into digital photography) is still shared by many cultures across the globe. From Native Americans to the Aborigines of Australia, there are those who refuse to be photographed.
This belief evolved in different ways for many cultures, occasionally revolving around the beliefs in the power of mirrors. In folklore, mirrors have the power to steal souls. The superstition of breaking a mirror and causing bad luck stems from the belief that a mirror contains the soul and breaking it causes damage to the soul. In ancient times, the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and many other cultures used reflective surfaces, such as mirrors to practice scrying – the ability to predict the future.
Mirrors were considered a major part of the Mayan religion and culture. Mirrors opened portals into the Otherworld, allowing ancestors and gods to pass through between the two planes. They believed when praying to a saint, the soul leaves the body. To help the soul find its way back into the body, mirrors are placed in front of saint statues to reflect back the soul.
In Chiapas, Mexico, there are towns which still adhere to the old Mayan ways. In San Juan Chamula it is illegal to take photographs in church. If you are caught using a camera in church – jail time is a distinct possibility. Older generation film cameras and todays SLR and digital SLR cameras still use mirrors. The Mayan beliefs led to photography being banned inside of churches.
Most of the people today allow their photograph to be taken, however infants are protected. It is still believed the souls of infants are fragile and are susceptible to leaving the body. Photographing an infant could harm the soul, preventing its return to the body. The soul is believed to be composed of thirteen parts, photography damages or even removes some of these components. A shaman was necessary to restore a person’s soul.
Some Native Americans still refuse to be photographed. One of the most famous Native Americans in history, Crazy Horse was never photographed while alive. He never allowed his photograph to be taken, even while on his deathbed. Some Navajo Native Americans practice a religious ceremony, known as a “sing” to recover a soul. Others embrace photography.
In her book, “Taken Pictures: On Interpreting Native American Photographs of the Southern Northwest Coast.” Carolyn J. Marr describes the change in Native Americans’ attitudes towards photography from the late 19th to the early 20th century. The negative attitude toward photography evolved to a positive one, in which photographs were integrated into religious ceremonies.
Practitioners of Voodoo believe in “sympathetic magic”. Sympathetic magic principles state a powerful link exists between entities that are similar in appearance or come into contact with each other. Items such as photographs, nail clippings, hair and other objects may be used to create an “image” of another person. This “image” may be used to cast a curse or spell. For this reason, there are some practitioners of Voodoo who are cautious of photographs, as they are powerful items capable of harm.
James W. Bailey is an experimental artist, photographer and imagist writer from Mississippi. His exhibition “Stealing Dead Souls” appeared at the Black Rock Center for the Arts in Germantown, Maryland in January and February of 2005. He was kind enough to share the images shown here and explain his religious belief in why photographs have the power to damage the soul.
“I hold a religious belief, probably inherited from my paternal Mississippi grandmother, who was 1/4 Choctaw Indian, and who was extremely distrustful of photography, that photography, more than any other art form, has the ability to capture a living element of life, a flashpoint of the soul if you will.”
“Of course, most recognize that the process of photographing a moment in time captures something in a fixated way that would normally be lost to history. I also believe that photographic images capture an aspect of that lived moment, a reflection of reality if you will, and that the photograph literally captures an element of the life force that presented itself in that moment that was captured.”
“When this living element is captured, it has the capability of re-generating itself in much the same way that certain life forms can lose a limb and regenerate it.”
“Photographs, in my opinion, literally steal a portion of life and can regenerate an aspect of that stolen fragment of life through the presented photograph itself.”
“The process of stealing an element of life through a photograph does cause, in my spiritual opinion, a degree of damage in the life force photographed. The life force may not know it, in the case of surreptitious street photographs made of people who are unaware they are being photographed, or the life force may fully consent to it in an emotionally suicidal way, such as may be the case with an under-age homeless drug-addicted girl who might “consent” to being illegally photographed as part of a child pornography publication in order to earn some money to feed her habit.”
“Let me be clear in what I saying: I spiritually believe that the photograph of the homeless person and the abused child taken with or without their consent captures a particle of their living essence. The photographs taken of them steal an element of their souls. The theft of the pieces of their souls harm them to a degree.”
“When such photographic images are taken, the only thing the photographer can do to make the universe right with what he or she has done is to place the photograph, which I believe to be a living organism, into a context of positive growth.”
“The great photographers, whether they know it or not, are photographers who have taken stolen elements of life and have placed those living substances into a context where the photographically captured life force has been encouraged toward positive growth.”
Ultimately whether one believes in the ability of photography to capture souls or not, respecting the beliefs and culture of the photographic subject should be paramount to any photographer.