How Photographs Steal Your Soul (or Why We Willingly Give It Away)

When I was a college freshman at the University of Washington, I took Anthropology 100 -- An Introduction to Anthropology. As in many introductory college courses, students were sometimes amazed by factoids that were thrown out that were believable, seemingly true but maybe based on little scientific evidence. In this class, we were told that there were tribes in Africa (or maybe it was South America) that believed that if your picture was taken, your soul would be stolen. So, they didn't want their pictures to be taken. To this day, I'm not sure if this is true or some racist urban legend propagated by an institution of higher learning, worthy of snopes debunking. 

Fast forward to the 21st century, I now believe this at some philosophical level.  When our picture is taken, it is potentially accessible by many.  How that image is used, altered, and re-purposed, is largely out of our control.  We've  given up a little part of ourselves.  The more pictures of us taken and used, the more we give up, and the less control of our identity that we have.  In effect, little by little, we give up a bit of ourselves each time a picture is taken and used.  In the end, indeed, I think we are giving away a little bit of our soul, picture by picture.

And, perhaps more interesting, our souls aren't being stolen, we are happy to give it up, without thinking about it too much.  Typically, we are "tricked" in do so, in exchange for some benefit.  For example, in order to see a taping of the Tonight Show, you are handed the card above.  Attendance to show is billed as free.  But when you arrive, you are told that to see the show you must agree to the "contract" on the card. After driving out to Burbank, standing in line for 2 hours, you are handed the card just before you enter.  What are you going to do?  You justify to yourself, not wanting to disappoint the rest of the party that you came with, what harm could come with a picture or a voice clip being used?

I'm not a lawyer, but it seems to say that NBC can take your picture or record your voice for any reason at anytime, regardless of whether it happens during the taping of the show or some other time.  And then use it for whatever they want anytime in the future.  A picture taken here, an advertisement used there -- your "soul" is taken from you, just a little bit.

Indeed, the cost of "free" is pretty expensive.  Perhaps each individual release to use a little part of you isn't very big, but the use and loss accumulates over time.  And you can never get it back.  In the extreme, imagine for the moment how this affects you if you are famous and there are thousands if not millions of pictures of you that are seen a billion times.  Have you lost control of your life and soul?

Increasingly, as privacy concerns rage on Facebook, the iPhone, Google, and Path, we're seemingly happy to give away a little bit of ourselves every day.  Today, it was brought to my attention that "free give aways" or drawings on the Internet are rampant, in which the "fine print"  allows our "soul to be stolen."  I recently saw a contest with a prize of $10,000.  You enter by signing up for the service and then there is a viral element that gives you more chances to win if you get other people to sign up.  In exchange for entering (not winning the contest), you basically give up rights, similar to the NBC contract:

"...Sponsor may use the winner's name, likeness, image, voice, photographs, biographical information, address (city and state) and written statements made by the winner about the Sweepstakes and Sponsor for promotional purposes, in all forms of media, in perpetuity and without monetary payment or additional consideration."

"Free giveaway," ironically, seems to mean that not only is the giveaway free; you are giving away your soul for free. A quick search on the web show that these kinds of contests are rampant.

Perhaps in the age where we expect  Google, Facebook, and music to be "free," I shouldn't be surprised.  We almost demand stuff should be free.  However, we should realize that the cost of free might be expensive.  We might just be giving away our souls.

Update: Shortly after posting, it's been pointed out to me that perhaps Pinterest, the current fascination on the Interwebs, is the most egregious soul sucker via pictures.

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This page contains a single entry by published on March 26, 2012 11:28 AM.

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