Souls are made of photons

There’s an apocryphal story about a team of researchers that discovered a village of people that had no previous contact with the modern world. The researchers began to document the villagers with their cameras, but when they showed them the photos the villagers became agitated. The people believed that the cameras were stealing their souls through the pictures. The researchers recorded this reaction in their notebooks, and their published observations highlighted the villagers’ primitive understanding of technology. The villagers could only understand the physics of photography through the lens (pardon) of their spiritualism, which was far more concrete to them than optics.

This is actually one of those apocryphal stories that turns out to be absolutely true. In fact, you can test it out yourself.

Just walk to the busiest intersection in town and start photographing people as they wait to cross the street. Adults, children, whoever.

You will quickly find yourself interrogated, avoided, perhaps even threatened. The natives will get antsy.

Why do the natives show such hostility? “You didn’t get my permission.” “You are invading my privacy.” They will suspect you of exploitation or perversion or aggression.

Both personal privacy and soul-theft are post-hoc rationalizations, metaphors we use to explain the basic intuition that we are more than our physical bodies, and that there are tools to access and tamper that incorporeal domain.

There is something in us that still feels, on a primitive level, that the act of photography affects the photographed. We can choose to give to the camera; the camera (and the photographer) takes your picture. The transaction consists of more than just photons. There is a transference of our inner selves – our emotions, our reputations, our aspirations, our insecurities. Light transubstantiated into soul.

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