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177 5. “A Photograph Steals the Soul”: The History of an Idea Z . S . S T R O T H E R One of the most popular debates swirling around photography on the internet is whether or not there are people who believe that photographs can steal their subjects ’ souls. This was the topic of a forum on the “philosophy of photography” in 2009, launched by a respondent who describes how he occasionally encounters individuals who dislike being photographed: I usually take candid pictures, usually without asking for permission. Usually I have no problem, but once in a while I encounter a person who vehemently objects, claiming that I am stealing their soul. It happened to me recently in the Caribbean island of Bequia, when an old woman covered her face long before I had any idea of taking her picture, and waved me away. In situations like this I simply pass because I have no interest in taking pictures of people against their will, rather than because I sympathise with their beliefs. In fact, I have no idea what these people are thinking. Can someone explain?1 Observe the dynamic of the narrative. The author routinely steals pictures, snappingthemwithoutpermission .Whenhissubjectsobject,heattributestheirreluctance to a belief that the photographer is “stealing their soul.” At first, the writer puts these very words into the objector’s mouth. However, when he describes the Z. S. Strother 178 event that triggered his internet inquiry—a woman on the predominantly black, English-speaking island of Bequia in the Caribbean, who covered her face to insulate herself from his camera—it becomes clear that she declined to explain herself to the tourist, waving him away. In fact, no one has explained these “beliefs” to him, with which he cannot “sympathise,” for which he must now turn back to his own world for clarification. In less than twenty-five minutes, he receives gratification. His respondent explains confidently: Those cultures that retain a belief in ‘sympathetic’ magic (where something that was a part of the person, like nail clippings, hair, blood or even an article of clothing) could be used to cast a spell or curse. A part of the ‘victim’ is essential in creating a ‘voodoo doll’. The ‘voodoo’ doll is an ‘image’ of the person and it isn’t a far stretch for superstitious people to view a photographic image as having similar ‘power’ and be afraid.2 The internet correspondents express a profound sense of cultural alienation from “superstitious people” in “those cultures,” whose difference is marked through unwillingness to sit for a tourist’s camera. As will become clear, the theory sketched in to explain why someone might refuse a photograph developed in the nineteenth century as a means to lay claim to a modern subjectivity. As late as 1977, Susan Sontag contrasted the desire for people in “industrialized countries” to be photographed with the imagined apprehensions of “many people in nonindustrialized countries.”3 She pronounced with remarkable self-assurance: “As everyone knows, primitive people fear that the camera will rob them of some part of their being.”4 Given these cherished convictions, the documentation of a hundred years of African photography has come as a surprise. This essay traces the origins of European narratives of photographic otherness and addresses the challenge of translating complex epistemologies for photographic practice in Africa. “A Portrait Steals the Soul” In 1889, in the expanded edition of his compendium Ethnographische Parallelelen und Vergleiche, the respected cartographer Richard Andree argued for the “A Photograph Steals the Soul” 179 existence of a widespread belief that a “portrait steals the soul” (Bildnis raubt die Seele): The fear to let oneself be drawn, which is widespread among many peoples ,isconnectedtosympatheticmagicandunderliessimilarbeliefs.The savage dominates his enemy’s body and soul if he can obtain a few hairornail -cuttingsfromthisindividual;heburnsthemandtherebydestroys his enemy. Such is also the case with portraiture [Bildnis], which seizes part of the life force [kraft] or even the soul of the original and which is understood as an incarnate alter ego for the person represented.5 It is dazzling the degree to which the internet correspondent in 2009 repeated this formulation to explain a mute stranger’s reluctance to be photographed. The act of portraiture, through mimesis (resemblance), is presumed to substitute for the incorporation of metonymic, physical relics of a victim (like hair or nail cuttings ), which may be gathered in order to gain control over a person’s life force. Andree’s interpretation was inspired by a study on...


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