A Link Between Power and Image, by Lexa Olick
(Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal.)
Over recent years, we have seen great strides in digital technology. Whatever new device comes out, it is only a matter of time before its newer incarnations become capable of taking photos. It wasn't long ago when a phone was a just phone and an iPod just carried music. Now, everything seems to double as a camera.
These digital cameras are capable of storing thousands of images; some people take advantage of that feature and these pictures never see the light of day. They sit inside the memory cards and may even be erased to make more room for new photos.
Because the technology is at our fingertips, we tend to take photographs on a whim. Whatever spontaneous moment arises, we are there to capture it. We can keep these magical moments frozen in time forever, as well as smaller moments, such snapping a quick shot of our reflection in the mirror.
For the most part, subject matter is still important. We continue to use photography as art, to preserve memories, and to remember our loved ones. However, now that we have the ability to take a photograph of anything at any time, we have a collection of photos that will likely never make it inside a frame.
When photography was introduced, it was most notable for portrait art. However, in some places of the world, people were not only the subject of portrait art—they themselves would also become a magical object. In the beginning, photography was seen as a type of sympathetic magic; to take a person's photo was to steal a part of them. It was equated to taking nail clippings, hair, blood, or other personal possessions to strengthen a curse against a victim. Possessing a photograph of an enemy became a powerful tool.
The most common myth surrounding photography was that a photograph stole a person's soul. In the 19th century, the Indians of the North American Plains used the term "shadow catcher" to identify a photographer. They thought that photographs captured the shadows; therefore, it trapped their souls within the image. They believed it gave the photographers power over the subject in the photo.
Of course, realistic representations of humans were feared from the beginning. In the legend of Daedalus, an inventor from ancient Greek mythology, Daedalus was the first person to render realistic images. He sculpted his statues with opened eyes, outstretched arms, and feet stepping forward. He was the first to make a sculpture that represented movement, while other sculptors formed figures with hanging arms, legs fixed together, and lowered eyelids. It was said that many believed that his stone statues were living beings that had to be secured or else they would run away.
It was a common belief throughout history that realistic images could move. In the early days of ancient Greece, deities were believed to reside in their cult images, which meant that the deities were capable of fleeing. Worshipers wanted to retain the gods' presence because their presence meant continual protection. To prevent the gods from running away, their images were either tethered or depicted without feet.
Since lifelike representations of human figures were thought to be alive, it was of no surprise that photography was feared as another way to cause harm when it was introduced. In Western Kenya, a curse could be placed by reflecting a photo in a mirror, so that the reflection could "watch itself," as it was pierced by a needle. If the photograph bled, the curse was successful. There were also less violent superstitions surrounding photographs. In Victorian times, family portraits were turned face-down to prevent anyone from becoming possessed by the spirits of the dead. The fears and superstitions that came along with the introduction of photography inspired a practice of photographic sorcery. Photographs were used to cause illness, death, inflict pain, or even control minds.
However, despite all this fear, it was not enough to chase away the technology. Instead, people countered the effects of photographic sorcery with their own magical uses for photography. Using photographs to counter curses is based on the same belief that images have their own innate abilities and power. Photographs were seen to take on the essence of the person photographed. If that person had any type of healing powers or history of longevity, their photograph could become a magical tool of luck.
It was not only the person who was photographed that could become a magical charm, but also the objects with which the person was photographed. In the 1940ss, a Christian fundamentalist movement called Balokole had spread in East Africa. The group taught that if someone was photographed with a Bible, it would protect that person from any spells. It was one of many ways to ensure safety against photographic magic.
In the 1980s, a healer and prophetess named Mary Akatsa performed miraculous healings. She referred to herself as a kiti, which means throne; she believed her body was a throne that allowed her to receive God's power, and she would use that power to heal those in need. Since patients were often too ill or far away to travel, she would employ the use of their photographs as stand-ins. Because she was a kiti, she could pass her power onto the person through their photograph by praying over their image and striking it with the Bible. Photographs were a channel that allowed her to pass her healing powers onto the sick.
Photographs often took over the place of medical treatment. It was believed that the supernatural powers of photographs could be taken as oral medicine. An image was submerged in water, left to soak, and the remaining water was drunk. Ingesting the empowered water also meant taking in the essence of the person photographed. Whoever consumed the magical water was taking in the portrait subject's magical properties. In Europe, there was a similar method known as schluckbildchen. Small images were consumed by people and livestock because photographs were believed to take on the healing powers of the person depicted. Also in Europe, photographs were slipped inside the wrappings of bandages, which were wound around the injured parts of the body. It was thought to increase the healing process and ensure survival.
In West Africa, the Yoruba people used human images as part of their native medicine practices; they believe that natural and supernatural remedies are both important, and the human images can be carved or molded. The natural material used to create the images can then channel the powers of the spirits represented in order to strengthen or cure the patient. Their supernatural methods work alongside their scientific methods.
Sometimes photographs literally became part of the person photographed. In the early history of photography, human remains could be employed in the process. Gum bichromate was an early photographic printing process. It allowed the use of human ashes to be added to the print in order to increase the potency of the photograph. Whether or not a photograph really stole a person's soul, a part of that person would always remain in their photo.
Photographs were also used as charms. In the late 1800s, the Massai warriors referred to photographers as a mganga, which means medicine man. This medicine man would create magical charms for the warriors by simply taking their photograph. These charms were believed to make them victorious in battle.
Nowadays, we often take a photo just because we can. We have forgotten most of the legends surrounding photography. However, we still use photography for celebration, remembrance, and documenting rites of passage. It's just no longer customary to use photographs for protection or harm; many photos don’t even find themselves in an album or frame. Perhaps the magical properties of photographs have just evolved. Not so long ago, people carried around photographs in lockets or wallets. Now, our precious memories are stored in our digital devices. As long as we flip through our digital archive and receive comfort and joy from the images we see, photography can still be used as a lucky charm.
Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal. Copyright Llewellyn Worldwide, 2013. All rights reserved.