There’s a great line from the late HBO television show Six Feet Under that occurs in the show’s final episode. As main character Claire Fisher prepares to leave the only home she has known in Los Angeles to move to New York City on her own, someone wistfully whispers in her ear, “You can’t take a picture of this, it’s already gone.” The sentiment spoken by Claire’s brother Nate is one of many arresting lines, but it stands out as one of the show’s more poignant moments.
Most of us have heard the superstition that the camera steals your soul, but where it comes from is hard to verify; one Internet search provides the results that South American and African tribes, ‘primitives’, thought the camera could steal one’s soul, while Native American tribes believed a camera would capture the soul on paper and trap it. It’s difficult to determine the time these beliefs date to, but the history of the camera is even longer, going back thousands of years through many people who envisioned, invented and refined the device. From Ibn al-Haytham to Johann Zahn to Joseph Nicephore Niepce, the click has existed in many forms and formats to arrive at its most common usage: the smart phone held in the hands of many.
In 2005, Wayne Fromm invented the modern selfie stick and in 2013, Oxford Dictionaries made ‘selfie’ the word of the year, ushering in a new era of the image. From the popularity of Facebook posts to the sharing of pictures on Instagram and SnapChat, there are few forums where the photographic image is not imperative to the conversation. The old adage that the camera can steal the soul is not so commonly heard now, but to think of what it means in the context of our culture is to consider the selfie, the kind of picture that can capture us at any moment.