Does a photograph steal your soul?

The answer is yes.

May 24, 2024 19 mins

Does a photograph steal your soul?

After photography was created in the 19th century, three very important questions were posed, debated, and considered, by different groups of people.

  1. Does a photograph steal your soul?
  2. Is a photograph a form of idolatry?
  3. Can photography be art?

Depending on one’s worldview, religious beliefs, understanding of science and technology, and language, they may answer each of these questions differently. I would like to propose that the answer to all three is yes.

In this longer than usual newsletter, I explore a few different areas:

  • the origin of photography, using sources from the 1843 Edinburgh Review and English and French copies of Louis Daguerre’s 1839 book about photography.
  • understand idolatry through the lens of the etymology of the word “photography”, both in its origins, as well as looking at the Arabic and Hebrew sources for their translations.
  • identify the relationship between art and photography using Susan Sontag’s On Photography, and a translation of Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”.
  • prove the existence of the soul using Justices Warren and Brandeis’ essay “The Right to Privacy”  in the Harvard Law Review, Professor Amy Adler’s essay “Against Moral Rights” in the California Law Review, and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

My conclusion is that in modern western culture, we accept that there are intangible qualities like reputation, emotion, and creativity which are legally protected in different ways, and the word "soul" is as good as any other to describe a personal intangible idea.

Additionally, we use photography as containers for our memories and meaning.

Therefore, if the intangible soul exists and photography can contain intangible concepts, and someone can use a photograph to harm your intangible soul, then photography can, effectively, steal your soul.

Dark and Light

The camera predates photography, at least in theory, by several millennia. The camera obscura, or dark chamber, was a originally a room with a pinhole or lens which would project an image of the world onto a wall. Philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, and scientists alike (to be fair, they were often the same person) across cultures and civilizations would use the concept to study light and theorize about vision.

Such a device first became portable around the 16th century. Artists would soon use versions of the device to achieve a greater level of verisimilitude and detail, similar to if you were to use an projector to project a slide onto a canvas, and just draw the lines as you would see them. Even today, camerae obscurae are commonly used during solar eclipses, so as not to blind viewers. 

Photographic History

A mechanical process of a method of copying paintings upon glass, and of making profiles by the agency of light upon nitrate of silver was published by Thomas Wedgewood in the first volume of Journals of the Royal Institution in 1802. He learned that moistening paper with a nitrate or muriate of silver would result in the light exposed areas being darkened on the paper.

Henry Fox Talbot would later use a similar method in 1834, when he created the Calotype, from the Ancient Greek words of καλός and τύπος, roughly translated as “good impression”, publishing a paper in 1839 entitled Some Account of the art of Photogenic Drawing, or the process by which natural objects may be made to delineate themselves without the aid of the artist's pencil. It would take seconds to capture an image.

The same basic principle would be also used by French inventor Nicéphore Niépce, starting in 1814 to use the light from the camera obscura to create photoetchings using bitumen. In 1827, he tried to publish with the Royal Society of London, but it seems his paper wasn’t even read. He entered into a partnership with Louis Daguerre in 1829, who had began his own process in 1824 using silvered copper. In short, Niépce died four years later, and Daguerre called the new invention the Daguerréotype. 

Also in 1839, Daguerre gave the invention to the French government, for the benefit of all nations, in return for a annual pension for him and Niépce’s family. Baron Gay Lussac wrote, “It is the origin of a new art in the middle of an old civilization; an art which will constitute an era, and be preserved as a title of glory.” 

Most people hadn’t traveled at that point in history, but they were excited about the promise of travel. The photograph could theoretically transport you to a new place and a different time. The photograph made the world feel smaller.

How limited is our present knowledge of the architectural ornaments of other nations - of the ruined grandeur of former ages - of the gigantic ranges of the Himalaya and the Andes - and of the enchanting scenery of lakes, and rivers, and valleys, and cataracts, and volcanoes, which occur throughout the world! 

Excepting by the labours of some travelling artists, we know them only through the sketches of hurried visitors, tricked up with false and ridiculous illustrations, which are equal mockeries of nature and of art. 

But when the photographer has prepared his truthful tablet, and ‘held his mirror up to nature,' she is taken captive in all her sublimity and beauty; and faithful images of her grandest, her loveliest, and her minutest features, are transferred to her most distant worshippers, and become the objects of a new and pleasing idolatry. 

The hallowed remains which faith has consecrated in the land of Palestine, the scene of our Saviour's pilgrimage and miracles - the endeared spots where he drew his first and his latest breath- the hills and temples of the Holy City - the giant flanks of Horeb, and the awe-inspiring summits of Mount Sinai, will be displayed to the Christian’s eye in the deep lines of truth, and appeal to his heart with all the powerful associations of an immortal interest.

— “Drawing by the Agency of Light”, Edinburgh Review (1843)

I shared this quote partially to show the hope of what the 19th century writers though of the practical uses of the invention, but also to note that the Edinburgh Review’s editorial board seemed to have considered photography a form of idolatry, but in a good way.

Earliest “Photographic” Usage

I always try to figure out what the earliest use I can find of a phrase. Curiosity is part of the reason, and the disbelief that people in 4 countries would magically begin using a phrase to mean exactly the same thing.

The title of the paper Niépce in 1827 had tried to publish was “pour la copie photographique des gravures” or “for the photographic copy of engravings”. 

Daguerre’s translator to English in 1839 includes the note on the name “Daguerréotype”:

This is the name given to the apparatus fitted up on the principles of M. Daguerre’s system of photographic or photogenic painting. All scientific terms ought to express either a fact or a name. The French generally prefer the latter, English philosophers the former element of nomenclature.

Sun Worship and Graven Imagery

Most Western languages refer to photography as some version of “photography”. Irish is an interesting exception because they call a photograph “grianghraf”, which literally means “sun-graph”, which is similar to one of the earlier names Niépce used, which was Heliography. 

It seems that the French used the term photographique and the English initially preferred photogenic. Photographic means “written by light”, whereas photogenic means “caused by light”.

Similar to the French - English debate on how active or passive a word to use, we see a similar debate in Arabic and Hebrew.

Arabic uses the word tașwir to describe photography, and Hebrew uses the word tzilum. In an earlier newsletter post, A Brief History of Shade, I note the Hebrew root here is the same for image.

If we were to translate the word “shadow” instead of “image”, like the root indicates, it tells a different story of what a shadow is. A shadow, like a picture or a statue, is an imperfect simulacrum of the original object. Your shadow is an imperfect copy of your body, Man is an imperfect derivation of God, and a son is an imperfect replication of his father. And a shade is an imperfect rendition of the original color. 

The Arabic word here comes from a slightly different root, coming from the word șura or form. It’s a cognate of the Hebrew verb le-tzur, from y-ș-r meaning to create, and the Hebrew word for creativity - yetziratiot.

Tașwir focuses more on the act of creation, whereas tzilum is a passive part of the process.

The original process of photography was using the sun to cause a chemical reaction with silver. In the words of Numbers 33:52, these are literally “molten images”. The sun was one of the earliest deities, and many idols are made from precious metals.

There are several ahadith which show that images of people are haram, or prohibited.

In Sunan an-Nasa’i (The Book of Adornment), the sunnah quotes An-Nadr Bin Anas:

"I was sitting with Ibn 'Abbas when a man from among the people of Al-'Iraq came to him and said: 'I make these images ('usawir hadhih altasawir); what do you say concerning them?' He said: 'Come closer, come closer. I heard Muhammad say: Whoever makes an image (sawar suratan) in this world will be commanded on the Day of Resurrection to breathe a soul into it, and he will not be able to do so.”

Sunan an-Nasa'i 5358

This echoes Genesis 2:7, where God forms (vayitzar) man from dirt, and then blows life into him.

Both languages choose a slightly different root to describe the same product, but they choose the roots which have the negative connotation within their own traditions. That said, the word used in the 10 Commandments (Exodus 20:4 and Deuteronomy 5:8) is not tzelem, but temunah, another modern word for picture. In any event, it seems as if photography in both languages is attempting to do accomplish the same act of creation as God, and that is the problem, more than it being worshipping idolatry.

That said, it would seem that photography is not idolatry within itself. However, the function of the photograph has that effect. It’s assigning heightened importance to a man-made object. When used by paparazzi on celebrity, for example, the case could be made that it is a form of idol worship. With television shows named American Idol or Pop Idol, we already use that language to describe fandom or hero worship.

As Susan Sontag explains

A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence.

…the poster photograph of a rock star tacked up over an adolescent's bed, the campaign-button image of a politician's face pinned on a voter's coat, the snapshots of a cabdriver's children clipped to the visor— all such talismanic uses of photographs express a feeling both sentimental and implicitly magical: they are attempts to contact or lay claim to another reality.

– Susan Sontag, On Photography (1977)

The origins of art are magic, and the physical photograph is a medium for it.

Photography and Art

In his essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”, Walter Benjamin notes:

The nineteenth-century dispute over the relative artistic merits of painting and photography seems misguided and confused today. But this does not diminish its importance, and may even underscore it.

Though commentators had earlier expended much fruitless ingenuity on the question of whether photography was an art-without asking the more fundamental question of whether the invention of photography had not transformed art itself…
—Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” (1935)

When Daguerre announced his invention, people were already afraid that the Daguerréotype would hurt artists. Anticipating this, in his book Daguerre asked an artist, Paul Delaroche for his thoughts. Delaroche wrote in a letter that was quoted in Daguerre’s book, that the 

processes of M. Daguerre "carry to such perfection certain of the essential principles of art, that they must become subjects of study and observation, even to most accomplished artists.”

After combatting, by excellent arguments, the opinions of those who have imagined that photography will be injurious to our artists, and especially to our able engravers, M. Delaroche finishes his letter with this reflection, "In conclusion, the admirable discovery of M. Daguerre, is an immense service already rendered to art." We shall not commit the unpardonable fault of adding anything to such a testimony.

Photography as a useful tool for the artist is a different question than photography as art. Function and intent matter as well.

To photograph a painting is one kind of reproduction, but it is quite another that allows photography to take part in a process in a film studio. In the first case, what is reproduced is a work of art, while the reproduction itself is not. The cameraman's performance with the lens is no more an artwork than is the conductor's with a symphony orchestra; at most, it is an artistic performance. This is unlike the shoot in a film studio. Here, what is reproduced is not an artwork, and the reproduction is naturally no more an artwork than is a photograph of a painting.

—Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” (1935)

There is a big difference between if photography could be art or if all photography is by definition art. In her book of essays On Photography, Susan Sontag takes a historical view:

The first cameras, made in France and England in the early 1840s, had only inventors and buffs to operate them. Since there were then no professional photographers, there could not be amateurs either, and taking photographs had no clear social use; it was a gratuitous, that is, an artistic activity, though with few pretensions to being an art. 

It was only with its industrialization that photography came into its own as art. As industrialization provided social uses for the operations of the photographer, so the reaction against these uses reinforced the self-consciousness of photography-as-art.

Recently, photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement... which means that, like every mass art form, photography is not practiced by most people as an art. It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.

– Susan Sontag, On Photography (1977)

Reading Benjamin’s explanation mirrored some advice I received four years ago, as I was beginning to prepare prints of the my Isolation Folders

I spoke with an art consultant and curator, and explained what I wanted to do, and he plainly said “Those aren’t prints.” I became offended, like I didn’t understand something. He patiently explained that a print is a reproduction of the art itself. I wanted to take a photograph of the whole folder. That is a still life, or an in situ, photograph of the painting. It’s something new. 

As I later explained to a theatre friend: A video of a play isn’t a play anymore. It’s something entirely different.

Immediately, I was revitalized. If this is photography, I’m able to manipulate it in different ways. I created a four color version of one of my dancers, channelling both Andy Warhol and Edgar Degas.

It became as if I was using every single part of the process to create something new. From the folder, to the paint, to the leftover paint, to the paint-filled paint brush, to the photography, to the edited and remixed photography. 

100 Days of Painted Solitude (2020)

Parenthetically, this is part of my problem with generative AI. Both the artistic process and the research process change the results. More often than not, I have no idea where either will end when I begin. A random word in a source can lead me down a rabbit hole which diametrically can change a piece. The process empowers.

I had began using manila folders and acrylic paints because I had manila folders and acrylic paints laying around. But as I painted every day, I began to realize a more symbolic meaning of the manila folders, that they, somehow, metaphorically captured my emotions from that day.

The act of photography can include catharsis and induce nostalgia. Like in the case of the works of art above, photographs too can contain memories and unseen meanings.

But when we are nostalgic, we take pictures.

It is a nostalgic time right now, and photographs actively promote nostalgia. Photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art. Most subjects photographed are, just by virtue of being photographed, touched with pathos. An ugly or grotesque subject may be moving because it has been dignified by the attention of the photographer. A beautiful subject can be the object of rueful feelings, because it has aged or decayed or no longer exists. All photographs are memento mori. 

To take a photograph is to participate in another person's (or thing's) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time's relentless melt.

– Susan Sontag, On Photography (1977)

Stolen Souls

Debunking the Myth

In 2013, in an chapter called called “‘A Photograph Steals the Soul’: The History of an Idea”, Z. S. Strother tries to debunk the idea that a photograph steals your soul.

He quotes James Frazer quoting Edward Nelson among the Inuit:

Nelson had written that the “Eskimo believe that persons dealing in witchcraft have the power of stealing a person’s inua or shade, so that it will cause him to pine away and die.” He “illustrated” this belief through one man’s response to his photography. He had mounted his large box camera to photograph a scene of village life and was focusing the lens under a hood when the village headman asked to see what he was doing. When he observed the “moving figures on the ground glass,” he suddenly shouted to his compatriots, “He has all of your shades in this box,” provoking a general rout.

And it is very enticing to read articles about the Amish, Africans, the Inuit, or even Orthodox Jews and mark them all as backward and technologically unknowledgeable. It ties well with a lot of the original writings from the period of the 1830s and 1840s where they were obsessed with what photography meant for the future.

For many, modernity became indistinguishable from scientism and the possession of technology. In his study of the reception of the phonograph, anthropologist Michael Taussig argues that late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century colonial literature framed technology as “something antithetical to magic.” The ability to distinguish between “technology” and “magic” served as a cornerstone for one’s “civilized identity-formation.” In particular, Europeans often depicted themselves with the camera, which seemed “to verify the existence of the scientific attitude as much as the existence of that which was photographed.”

In fact

As Heike Behrend has emphasized, it was Europeans who “initially placed photography in a context of power, healing, killing, sorcery, and witchcraft. They converted technology into magic.”


In the travelogues, natives cooperate because the portraitist is a wizard or they won’t cooperate because he is a wizard, sometimes in the same narrative.

The tales of “natives” mistaking technology for magic in travelogues reveal nothing more than the intensity of European desire to re-enchant technology with a freshness and mystique that it had long since lost at home. And yet, even as the texts satirize the naiveté of natives, they document an atmosphere of intimidation in which the camera was linked to the display of guns. Africans could be wary of Europeans, as strangers of unknown agenda, rather than of photography, as a novel representational practice.

Just like the word in Hebrew is related to shade, so too, in various African languages, and shade and soul have become synonymous. As I have have previously written about the object colors “white” and “black” to describe people, where it was likely to have been a mistranslation from the more subjective or comparative “light” or “dark”.

Moreover, the fact that some African languages first described photographs as “shadows” or “reflections” has been used to justify Frazer’s theories through a model of linguistic algebra: if a = b, and b = c, then a = c. In other words, if the same term is used for “portrait,” “shadow,” or “reflection,” and “soul,” then what is believed about one must apply to all.

To shortcut his explanation, Strother proves this in the Kipende language, that the word kivule mirrors my definitions of tzel (shadow) and tzilum (photography).

The debunking is that people continued the connection from things like voodoo dolls to photographs, and that it isn’t capturing your soul, but it lets someone else own you.

What is far more common, in Mali as in other parts of Africa, is concern about the circulation of photographs. As Keller has forcefully argued, Africans share the same apprehensions as Westerners about loss of control over their images.

The Soul Legally Exists

I would contend that while there is something true in Strother’s explanation, it doesn’t negate the fact that either the camera or the photograph does in fact capture the soul, at least in modern Western culture.

Only 50 years after the photograph was invented, in an historic essay written by Justices Warren and Brandeis for the Harvard Law Review in December 1890, we see the effect seemingly innocuous things like photography and gossip have on society.

Recent inventions and business methods call attention to the next step which must be taken for the protection of the person, and for securing to the individual what Judge Cooley calls the right "to be let alone”. Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life; and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that "what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops."

For years there has been a feeling that the law must afford some remedy for the unauthorized circulation of portraits of private persons; and the evil of invasion of privacy by the newspapers, long keenly felt, has been but recently discussed by an able writer. The alleged facts of a somewhat notorious case brought before an inferior tribunal in New York a few months ago, directly involved the consideration of the right of circulating portraits; and the question whether our law will recognize and protect the right to privacy in this and in other respects must soon come before our courts for consideration.

The essay starts with a history lesson about the evolution of law; how it began only protecting your body and property, but evolved to include things like products of the mind including emotions, reputation, thoughts, sensations, and creativity.

Artists have something called “moral rights”, which is has been part of US law since 1990, but was European in origin. In the California Law Review in 2009, Amy Adler wrote an essay against these rights. She explains the concept in her introduction: 

Normally when you buy something, you can do what you want with it. If you buy a chair, or a dress, or a car, you can alter it, embellish it, neglect it, abuse it, destroy it, or throw it away. But if you buy a work of art, your freedom to do what you want with that object — your own property—is severely curtailed. This is because artists have powerful special rights, called “moral rights,” unlike the creators of other objects. Moral rights allow an artist to control what you do with his work of art even after he has sold it, and even if you are not in privity of contract with him.

Wading through the largely repetitive law review literature, it doesn’t take long to get the implicit message: if you don’t support moral rights, you’re a philistine who doesn’t understand the sanctity of art.

(In case you haven’t read the newsletter section about why philistines are people who don’t appreciate art, here it is.)

She explains the theory more in depth: 

…a work of art is an extension of the artist himself. I use the term “himself” rather than “herself” advisedly because of the language of “paternity” that is a refrain in moral rights scholarship. Scholars invoke the metaphor of paternity to explain the artist’s profound connection with his work: he cares so deeply about the fate of his art because it is somehow his child and not just another object. Thus the artist feels personal anguish when someone else modifies his artwork/child. This is so even though the child has grown up and left home, and even though the artist/father has sold his child. The work of art is not just another product he has sold, but rather an “expression of his innermost being.” As the Second Circuit observed, moral rights “spring from a belief that an artist in the process of creation injects his spirit into the work.” 

Indeed, moral rights advocates sometimes speak of art works as if they were living things: “To mistreat the work is to mistreat the artist.” It is as if the work has a magical connection to its maker; hurting the piece will hurt the artist as if you were sticking pins in a voodoo doll. Because of this emphasis on the artist’s (and indeed the art’s) personhood, moral rights are said to have a “spiritual, non-economic and personal nature”.

Putting aside my personal feelings as an artist and writer, and not getting into a diatribe regarding the emotional rollercoaster it takes to not only create a work of art but also to put it into the world, and how it is easy to say that the rejection of work doesn’t indicate the rejection of the creator, in both Adler’s and Warren and Brandeis’ essays we can see the indication of the existence of an unseen, unquantifiable, nameless intangible construct.

Around the same time Warren and Brandeis were writing “The Right to Privacy”, Oscar Wilde was writing The Picture of Dorian Gray. In the story, Dorian wishes to sell his soul to ensure that the picture will age, and he will not. He remains young and beautiful, and the picture becomes a visual representation not only of his age, but also about the state of his soul.

In her essay, Adler compares different artists, including Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol:

When we think of Pollock, we think not only of his canvasses, but also of the process of his creation: the great, tortured genius in an existential confrontation with his art, pouring his soul onto the canvas in a burst of creative angst. Pollock’s paintings became hallmarks of modernism. Not only was his work a formal breakthrough, it was also a record of his individual will. It is easy to see why we would consider Pollack’s’ art “an expression of his innermost being.” Pollock’s paintings, aptly called “action paintings,” are a record of his transcendent struggle; we feel him in his work.

But  no one was more important in this regard than Andy Warhol, who attacked the idea that are was somehow worthy of more reverence than other objects. Instead of the tortured artist baring his should on canvas as an expression of his innermost being, Warhol gave us the vacant artist, reproducing celebrity photographs, Brillo boxes and cans of soup, rolling them off the production line in the studio he called the “Factory.” Warhol did not only render consumer products as art; he also made art into a consumer product. He turned the hallowed artist into just another businessman. Warhol’s subject matter and his technique were depersonalized and commercial.

I think that what Adler misses is that this concept of a soul is more that just the tortured action, but according the Warren and Brandeis would even include ideas. Warhol was obsessed with concepts of celebrity and commodity. He mass-produced celebrity screen prints and painted the soup cans. He transformed commodity into celebrity and celebrity into commodity.

This belief that the artist must struggle to create art, and that we must see that struggle in their artwork, is ludicrous. But even Adler understands that a physical item, like Pollock's paintings, can contain additional meaning, which I'm just going to call a "soul" for short.

Soul Killing, or Iconoclasm

Much of Adler's argument against "moral rights" is for the right of iconoclasm, literally defined, the act of breaking religious iconography. She brings multiple cases where artists destroyed previous artists' work.

She finishes with a story which she feels proves her point, but I feel it does quite the opposite:

In 2001, Damien Hirst, the wildly celebrated artist and winner of England’s prestigious Turner Prize, exihibited a word of “trash” at a well-known London gallery. The piece consisted of garbage — coffee cups, empty beer bottles, candy wrappers, full ash trays, newspapers— strewn on a gallery floor. It was valued at six figures. After Hirst installed the work, a janitor arrived at the gallery and promptly cleaned up by throwing out the art. Gallery staffers later salvaged it from the garbage and meticulously reconstructed the installation from photographs taken earlier.

Did the janitor violate Hirst’s work in a way that would be akin to violating Hirst’s child. Did he harm Hirst’s soul, his innermost being?

Considering that this essay was written by a law professor and published in a law journal, I have to ask, did the janitor have mens rea? Did he have intent to destroy? And that’s really the difference here.

Iconoclasm is meaningful precisely because it is wrong and transgressive, both morally and legally, and the iconoclast wishes to make a statement in spite of that.

Iconoclasm is, in essence, symbolically killing the soul of the art.

If one feels that they wish to buy a Picasso to destroy, and they do so publicly, let them do it, then have a show trial. Fine them. Throw them in jail for a night or a week. Create a symbolic punishment for a symbolic crime.


To return this to photography, which is where it began, if a physical item (like art) can legally and morally contain the soul (whatever that means) of an artist, then why can't a photograph contain the soul of the depicted?

Your image has legal rights. Someone cannot just take a picture of you and use it without permission. Conversely, if someone does use your photograph in a harmful way, and they cause intangible damage to your reputation or relationship, that's effectively proof that a photograph can contain your soul.

But we don't even have to go that far. A photograph holds memories, unseen by everyone else. It’s a container that can remind you of the best and worst days.

Every time you take or are in a photograph, part of you stays with it.

Let's just call it a soul.


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