Cameras, Guns, and Stealing Souls

Every couple of years, a few of my photographer friends come out to our land to shoot guns. We walk far back into the woods, mount targets on trees, and blast away; usually doing more damage to grass and soil than we do to the targets or the trees that hold them. This photograph is of my friend Larry White, a fine art photographer and former instructor at UNCA, shooting a .45 caliber Colt revolver owned by our mutual friend, Ben Porter, and used by Ben’s father in World War II.

I’ve long been fascinated by the likenesses between cameras and guns. The similar language comes first to mind – the loading and unloading, the shooting, the aiming and framing, the “target rich environment” photographers sometimes refer to when discussing an image-filled situation. But it is the actual making of photographs, and the stoppage of time that occurs every time we press a camera’s shutter, that is perhaps most analogous to the firing of guns.

The sole purpose of firearms is, of course, to stop time, to end the life of whatever we shoot at. Now, I understand we often use guns to threaten and to protect, or in the case of my buddies in the woods, to practice our marksmanship and bond in a manly kind of way. But the primary purpose of a gun is to kill – to stop the life of whatever or whoever it is pointed at.

One might say that cameras and pictures are not nearly so nefarious. Yes, they too stop time, but they do so for the sake of memory. Time is momentarily stilled, but life goes on beyond the image. While we don’t physically end someone’s life when we make their photograph, I would argue that we can, and often do, choose to use our cameras as tools for character assassination – to embarrass a political candidate perhaps or by posting an unflattering photograph of someone on Facebook. One only has to think of the body language that came into use with the invention of photography – the hands over the face, the shielding from view – to understand the power of this tool.

Years ago, when I started making photographs in a serious way, I heard of people who wouldn’t allow photographs to be made of themselves because they believed pictures stole a person’s soul. It was easy enough to dismiss these beliefs as primitive or unsophisticated, but the longer I’ve worked in this medium; the more I understand the truth of those “primitive” beliefs. I don’t call it “soul stealing,” but I know every time I trip the shutter of my camera, I’m trying to capture the essence of a person or situation, and fix it in time for all the world to see.