Can a photograph capture a soul?

This is quite a tricky question to answer and raises a number of ethical points for a photographer.

The sceptic will deny it is tricky to answer and simply say “no”. They may of course be quite correct. We may not have a soul. If so it may be that it simply cannot be captured.

Certainly a sceptic may be more acceptable to the idea that if there is such a thing as a soul, it may be reflected in a photograph. If not a soul, then certainly the character.

Now of course, much of this depends on whether we have a soul. Certainly we are sentient beings, capable of contemplating our own existence and certainly we all are capable of considering whether we have a soul or not. Each of us will agree that we have a personality and have feelings.

Considering many of the iconic images with which we will be familiar; the famous portrait of an Afghan Girl taken by Steve McCurry for National Geographic, the portrait of the battle weary GI in Vietnam with the ‘thousand yard stare’ as captured by Don McCullin or the candid photographs of those masters of the decisive moment; Henry Cartier Bresson and Robert Capa, that the deepest feelings, hopes and fears of person can be immortalised. That instant, irrecoverable thereafter can be captured. If this is not the soul, what is?

It is correct that some tribes in South America, Native American Indians and in Africa have expressed a belief that a soul can be captured in a photograph. There will be many reasons for this and nost will be largely alient to a Westerner with an entirely different system of beliefs and practices. For this reason alone, we should avoid the tempation to scorn that which we don’t understand.

Some cultures, for example in parts of Africa or the Carribean practice religions encompassing ‘sympathetic magic’ which is based on the assumption that a person can be supernaturally affected through its name or through the medium of an object representing them. Thus in practicing Voodoo, to use a voodoo doll, something from the person represented by the doll must be used, for example, hair.

Thus amongst those holding such beliefs, the idea that their image in a photograph could give another some power over them is a genuine belief and one not to be mocked. There certainly appears to be a greater rational for such a belief that for many Western superstitions which are commonly practiced, though which few can understand why, for example not crossing on stairs or walking under a ladder.

Susan Sontag in her famous essay, ‘On Photography’ famously said “To collect photographs is to collect the World”. Yet this is perhaps our Western arrogance where we have afforded ourselves the right to shoot all we see, irrespective of and ignorant to the wishes of our subjects. In parts of the World where photography is viewed with suspicion, many tourists will simply aleviate any ethical concerns by tossing their intended subjects a couple of coins to pose and look ‘authentic’.

Is the alternative to shoot a candid shot and capture a true, unposed essence? This will ignore the wishes of the subject and give no sympathy to their fears.

There is another option. Don’t take the photo. Not everything in this World belongs to us and indiginous cultures are not necessarily there for our amusement. They need not be ‘collected’.