How did they know what the camera would do? Polaroids?
July 10, 2007 10:19 PM   Subscribe

Where does the story that some indigenous/aboriginal tribespeople refuse to have their photographs taken because they're afraid it will steal/eat/capture their souls come from? Is it totally apocryphal or is there something approaching a canonical primary source?
posted by juv3nal to Society & Culture (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It's a variation on sympathetic magic, where the belief is that images or effigies of people can be used against them. A voodoo doll is an example of a sympathetic magical belief, along with using locks of hair to create potions or whatnot, or the idea of knowing a true name.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:25 PM on July 10, 2007

Thanks, but I've read my Frazer. I'm less concerned about why aboriginals feel that way and more about who the first person was that went out with a camera and encountered this reaction and, if such an account exists, what they had to say about it.
posted by juv3nal at 10:32 PM on July 10, 2007

Thanks, but I've read my Frazer.

Well, perhaps you can include that understanding in your question next time. ;-)

Apparently, Balzac had a thing about cameras and souls. Perhaps the two ideas (camera, soul, sympathetic magic) were simply conflated.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:59 PM on July 10, 2007

Not directly an answer to my question, but your mention of Balzac led me to this which has this fascinating passage:

Furthermore, in Europe, too, the idea existed that the act of photographing entails a transference of substance from the person photographed. The French photographer Nadar reported that Balzac was convinced that with each photograph taken, the depicted person lost a layer of skin, thus losing substance.
There were also attempts to counteract the discorporation associated with photography: For example, with the aid of the rubber-bichromate process, human substance was added to certain post mortem photos. The ashes of the deceased were hereby brought together with a photo taken earlier in the following way: "The ashes will adhere to the parts unexposed to light, and a portrait is obtained composed entirely of the person it represents."

Even when it doesn't produce what we ask of it, maybe especially then, the internet is mighty.
posted by juv3nal at 11:26 PM on July 10, 2007 [2 favorites]

human substance was added to certain post mortem photos. The ashes of the deceased were hereby brought together with a photo taken earlier in the following way: "The ashes will adhere to the parts unexposed to light, and a portrait is obtained composed entirely of the person it represents."

Mighty, mighty!

Sorry, not an answer, but had to say it.
posted by Wolof at 12:45 AM on July 11, 2007

There are some specific accounts in chapter XVIII, section 3 of The Golden Bough:
As with shadows and reflections, so with portraits; they are often believed to contain the soul of the person portrayed. People who hold this belief are naturally loth to have their likenesses taken; for if the portrait is the soul, or at least a vital part of the person portrayed, whoever possesses the portrait will be able to exercise a fatal influence over the original of it. Thus the Esquimaux of Bering Strait believe that persons dealing in witchcraft have the power of stealing a person’s shade, so that without it he will pine away and die. Once at a village on the lower Yukon River an explorer had set up his camera to get a picture of the people as they were moving about among their houses. While he was focusing the instrument, the headman of the village came up and insisted on peeping under the cloth. Being allowed to do so, he gazed intently for a minute at the moving figures on the ground glass, then suddenly withdrew his head and bawled at the top of his voice to the people, “He has all of your shades in this box.” A panic ensued among the group, and in an instant they disappeared helterskelter into their houses. The Tepehuanes of Mexico stood in mortal terror of the camera, and five days’ persuasion was necessary to induce them to pose for it. When at last they consented, they looked like criminals about to be executed. They believed that by photographing people the artist could carry off their souls and devour them at his leisure moments. They said that, when the pictures reached his country, they would die or some other evil would befall them. When Dr. Catat and some companions were exploring the Bara country on the west coast of Madagascar, the people suddenly became hostile. The day before the travellers, not without difficulty, had photographed the royal family, and now found themselves accused of taking the souls of the natives for the purpose of selling them when they returned to France. Denial was vain; in compliance with the custom of the country they were obliged to catch the souls, which were then put into a basket and ordered by Dr. Catat to return to their respective owners.
Some villagers in Sikhim betrayed a lively horror and hid away whenever the lens of a camera, or “the evil eye of the box” as they called it, was turned on them. They thought it took away their souls with their pictures, and so put it in the power of the owner of the pictures to cast spells on them, and they alleged that a photograph of the scenery blighted the landscape. Until the reign of the late King of Siam no Siamese coins were ever stamped with the image of the king, “for at that time there was a strong prejudice against the making of portraits in any medium. Europeans who travel into the jungle have, even at the present time, only to point a camera at a crowd to procure its instant dispersion. When a copy of the face of a person is made and taken away from him, a portion of his life goes with the picture. Unless the sovereign had been blessed with the years of a Methusaleh he could scarcely have permitted his life to be distributed in small pieces together with the coins of the realm.”
Beliefs of the same sort still linger in various parts of Europe. Not very many years ago some old women in the Greek island of Carpathus were very angry at having their likenesses drawn, thinking that in consequence they would pine and die. There are persons in the West of Scotland “who refuse to have their likenesses taken lest it prove unlucky; and give as instances the cases of several of their friends who never had a day’s health after being photographed.”
posted by misteraitch at 2:10 AM on July 11, 2007

That's pretty ok. It does sound like a big bunch of hearsay though. I was hoping for some first person explorer's journal type thing, but I suspect this may be the best I'm going to get, eh?
posted by juv3nal at 2:49 AM on July 11, 2007

Michael Taussig's book "Mimesis and Alterity: A particular history of the senses" has some interesting things to say about this topic.

There is a chapter in the book about the recurring theme of expeditions bringing phonographs into the hinterlands to record and play back peoples' voices to them, so that they can hear their voices separated from their bodies for the first time.

Taussig calls it a "frontier ritual of technological supremacy" and suggests that the practice says as much if not more about the person lugging the phonograph as it does about the person being recorded--who often is not all that impressed by the new technology.

Returning to your question, this perspective would probably suggest that telling the story of photographs and souls originates in a social impulse in dealing with the 'other' rather than a specific traceable occurrence.

Taussig's work owes a large debt to Walter Benjamin, so you could probably string together an argument here about the impulse being based on anxieties regarding the dissipation of object's aura in the age of photograph. That might be going too's been a long time since I read the book.
posted by umbú at 4:43 AM on July 11, 2007

The Golden Bough accounts are generally based on actual explorer's reports, though - even if Frazer doesn't give sources, you might turn up the original texts by googling around.

"The Tepehuanes of Mexico" reference, for instance, seems to come from Carl Lumholtz's 1910's travel journal "Unknown Mexico": The soul-stealing page in question; full text at Project Gutenburg

I'm not finding Dr. Catat's "the Bara country on the west coast of Madagascar" work in English translation, but here's Mary French-Sheldon's 1892 journal article "Customs among the Natives of East Africa, from Teita to Kilimegalia, with Special Reference to their Women and Children" saying that Bara natives flee from cameras as "a species of witchcraft".

Hope that helps.
posted by ormondsacker at 7:41 AM on July 11, 2007

Similar accounts circulate for the early history of audio recording. (See Kittler's *Discourse Networks,* and the parallel is also discussed in Taussig's *Mimesis and Alterity,* recommended above).

I've read huge amounts of early ethnographic literature, however, and cannot think of an instance of the sort you are seeking. I can think of examples where early field recordists (not always anthropologists) discussed the mystifying or frightening effect of playing back audio recordings to their subjects -- there are several such discussions in Laura Boulton's *The Music Hunter* (long out of print), for example.

Makes one wonder how much of this was a European projection onto the "primitive" mind, and an expression of European anxieties about technology and representation.
posted by spitbull at 8:35 AM on July 11, 2007

That page from Lumholtz is exactly the kind of thing I was looking for.

Makes one wonder how much of this was a European projection onto the "primitive" mind, and an expression of European anxieties about technology and representation.

Yes, that's what I was wondering.

Thanks all.

Mimesis and Alterity is on my "to read" list now.
posted by juv3nal at 9:52 AM on July 11, 2007

That Lumholtz page is exactly the sort of thing I was looking for.

Makes one wonder how much of this was a European projection onto the "primitive" mind, and an expression of European anxieties about technology and representation.

Yes, that's what I was wondering.

Thanks all.
posted by juv3nal at 9:56 AM on July 11, 2007

ack double
posted by juv3nal at 9:57 AM on July 11, 2007

Here's another account, by a European photographer in nineteenth-century China:

I have had my chair torn to pieces on the road, my coolies beaten, and my camera broken .. This unfortunate hostility to photographic manipulations is due to a strange belief that the photographic image is the soul of the original, the withdrawal of which fromm the body very naturally produces death. This tragic end may not take place for a month or more, but I have heard two years given as the longest time the photographed victim can exist.

(D.K. Griffith in The Photographic News, 28 May 1875, quoted in Clark Worswick and Jonathan Spence, Imperial China: Photographs 1850-1912 (1978), p. 143.)

I don't believe that this is all a European projection onto the 'primitive' mind. I'm prepared to accept that this may be part of the explanation, but I don't think it can be the whole explanation, for two reasons: (1) it fails to explain the large number of such accounts, recorded independently, and (2) it underestimates the impact of photography encountered for the first time.

The classic discussion of these issues, which you may already know, is Edmund Carpenter's Oh, What A Blow That Phantom Gave Me! which is now available, in full, in an online hypertext edition. See here, for example:

We gave each person a Polaroid shot of himself. At first there was no understanding. The photographs were black and white, flat, static, odourless -- far removed from any reality they knew. They had to be taught to 'read' them. I pointed to a nose in a picture, then touched the real nose, etc. Often one or more boys would intrude into the scene, peering intently from picture to subject, then shout: 'It's you!'

Recognition gradually came into the subject's face. And fear. Suddenly he covered his mouth, ducked his head and turned his body away. After this first startled response, often repeated several times, he either stood transfixed, staring at his imge, only his stomach muscles betraying tension, or he retreated from the group, pressing his photograph against his chest, showing it to no one, slipping away to study it in solitude.


But in an astonishingly short time, these villagers, including children and even a few women, were making movies themselves, taking Polaroid shots of each other, and endlessly playing with tape recorders. No longer fearful of their own portraits, men wore them openly on their foreheads.

Now, Carpenter was heavily influenced by McLuhan's theories about the alienating power of new media (and also, I suspect, by Lacan's theory of the 'mirror stage') which now look a little bit dated. And in Phantom, he quite explicitly uses his experiences in New Guinea as the starting-point for reflections on the power of the media in modern Western society. So yes, you could argue that this all boils down to 'European anxieties about technology and representation'. But I think this would be a very reductive way of looking at it.

Carpenter's argument, in essence, is that new media have a shattering impact on first encounter, but that this is followed by very rapid acceptance and acculturation. I find this highly persuasive. It explains the many anecdotal accounts of photography as soul-stealing, but also explains why these quickly die away -- and doesn't make any patronising assumptions about the effect of modern technology on the 'primitive mind'.

Of course, there are some anthropologists who would argue that photography really WAS a form of soul-stealing, in that it objectified the native, surrendered power to the European observer, etc etc. But that's another story ..
posted by verstegan at 2:46 AM on July 25, 2007

Oh yes -- and while on the subject of Edmund Carpenter, I can't resist quoting my favourite passage from the film of Oh, What A Blow That Phantom Gave Me! This is Carpenter describing life in an Eskimo igloo:

It drips, you shift from one buttock to another and you wonder what in God's name you're doing there. Somebody belches, every fart is lived with collectively. The place is very depressing. They simply hibernate and then when they come awake, they come awake and there's a signal that goes up, you know, the cry, "woooaaah," like that, and they rush, they come to and they rush out with their -- their weapons, and it's an astonishing thing to see.

An uncannily accurate description of Metafilter, I sometimes think.
posted by verstegan at 3:00 AM on July 25, 2007

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