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.
It is one thing to look back at a picture and to remember, but taking a picture also removes one from it. I remember travelling by bus to the city of Granada, Spain, and arriving in the city’s outskirts as the sun rose up over the hills at 5:30 AM. At the time, I was frustrated that my data card was full and I could not take a picture – it was redolent, the hills so beautiful – but now, in the present tense, I recognize it as something that cannot be seen again in the same way. I’m grateful that I don’t have a picture because I remember it in my mind, and there is nothing to limit or alter the recollection.
It is one thing to take a picture of a place, a specific thing, but it’s abundantly clear that taking, posting and even making sizeable profits off of pictures of oneself reveals an odd post-modern narcissism: the selling off of a life bit by bit. Instead of a moment of a life existing just as it is and being captured, it becomes much like a piece of clothing, a cookie, a 300-word article, something to be observed and half-digested. Instead of something lived, it becomes a commodity that depicts how things appear to be. Once it’s cast out into the world, shared through a social media forum or a text, the picture’s deference is not to the person inhabiting the moment but to those who are observing it. It is an object, a thing to be consumed as it is witnessed.
Native Americans may have been aware of the soul-stealing stare of a camera, but in the present day, when the clicking rarely stops, the images that are held become what is real. Instead of the camera stealing the soul, it is the quick-clicking image that does it, holding the reality of life in its thrall as the picture becomes the thing that is alive.