I remember reading somewhere that when certain aboriginal tribes first had contact with photography they decided that it wasn’t a good thing to have your photo taken because having your photo taken meant that part of your soul was also taken in the process. I think somehow they might have been right.
I’m no scientist, but I think that most scientists agree that all of us humans are made of cells, molecules and electrons/protons and some as-of-yet unidentified subatomic particles. Everyone looks solid for a reason that I can’t figure out; when, in fact, we are just a bunch of energy formed into a piece of matter that has the cumulative mass of all of our parts.
According to Einstein energy and matter are equivalent; and the equation E = mc2 indicates that energy always exhibits relativistic mass (mass is the weight of any particular matter) in whatever form the energy takes1 – or basically, wherever you go there you are existing as the same lump of matter and energy that you’ve always been.
I’ve never thought of myself, my solid self, as “energy” but if Albert Einstein theorized it, it has to have a bit of relevance. So, if we are indeed part solid (matter) and part invisible/visible (energy or light because the ‘c’ in the equation symbolizes the speed of light meaning that Einstein was using light as energy in his calculations), how much of ourselves is taken, stolen when a photograph is snapped? What happens when a photograph is taken? I think that light from the sun or an artificial source bounces off a subject, is reflected back to the camera, is flashed onto film or is digitized and the resulting image appears on a piece of photographic paper or a computer screen.
Is all that matter and energy that is reflected and ends up in a soul-stealing device the same matter and energy that is standing their posing for the photo? My first reaction would be to say, no – it is only a representation of reality. It’s only a record of a physical entity! But, after further reflection, I realize that all of reality is mutable and I think photography, especially digital, is a mover (transporter) of matter and energy.
Why are some photographs emotionally moving, while others do nothing to our emotions? If I framed in my camera a scene in Yosemite that Ansel Adams had framed years ago at the same time of year, the same time of day and at the same location I wouldn’t be able to duplicate what he achieved. Even if my photo were technically perfect in all ways, I wouldn’t be able to elicit from a viewer the same emotion that a viewer of an Ansel Adam’s photo might experience. Whatever my photo might elicit would be a product of how I see the scene.
Photographers have a connection with their subjects, whether they be landscapes or humans, that is unique to the photographer and it endures and transfers to the patron (via matter and energy) a truth about the moment captured. When I look at a Sebastiao Salgado photo of African gold miners or Ethiopian refugees, I can’t help but to see something in myself. I see the miner’s sweaty, muddy, muscular bodies moving up and down impossibly steep slopes to earn in a day what I make in a couple of minutes sitting at my desk. Subsequently, I think of how fortunate I am in my happy warm home with enough fresh food to eat and water to drink; in the next moment my gut churns knowing that another human is suffering and I can’t do a damn thing about it; and all this transpires because some guy aimed a camera at a scene and pushed the button thereby facilitating the transfer of matter and energy from one medium to another.
Though I’ve never been to an African gold mine, I know by looking at that photo that something isn’t right, that people are living too hard of a life. I’ve never been to Ethiopia nor have I personally witnessed starvation, but emotionally I get that those Ethiopians are starving. I might know the back story or just the headline before I see the photo, but the photo completes the narrative. How does this happen? How do I know what starvation and human suffering are via a photograph?
One could say that somewhere in us, in our genes we know what it is to suffer and we need only see an example of it to trigger our innate emotions.
I think it’s all of the above the transference and our genetic make-up, and if a photographer has a strong enough connection with his/her subject, then we are going to feel it and possibly live part of what they are experiencing.