Many of the Masai tribal people in East Africa believe that to take their picture "steals" their soul. In a sense, taking a photograph of someone does take some part of them -- a moment of time, a privacy they once had, some essence of who they are or who they were. Perhaps that is why you should ask permission to take someone's picture -- it's theirs to give not ours to take.
I thought of this yesterday as I read the article on the photography of Margaret Morley in the News and Observer ("Genuine Mountain Made"). Morley traversed the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee around the turn of the century documenting mountain folk and their way of life. The photos were acquired by the State of North Carolina and are now featured in an exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of History. I plan to see it.
Just the few photos I looked at online were compelling. These were real people who allowed Margaret Morley, an outsider, to come into their lives. Why did they do it? I don't know without knowing more about Morley, but she must have gained their trust and friendship. The one I include here, particularly in a larger size, can almost make you feel that you could be there, smelling the fire, the old wood, hearing the creak of the rocker, passing time by reflecting on the day. That's a good photo, one that comes alive through study.
In an image-laden culture, where we are besieged by digital photos (both our own and others), we really cannot imagine the wonder of a photo. Until the 1840s, there were no photos of people. Can we really imagine what it would have been like to have a photograph made of a family member, perhaps a distant relative, and know that that was exactly what they looked like and be able to look at them any time we liked? I doubt it. Imagine if we had a photograph of Jesus? What would that be like? Consider the Jewish people: They had a long tradition of oral history and could hear of the patriarchs and prophets, the Exodus, the Babylonian Captivity, the rebuilding of the temple -- but they had no photos. Even before the phographic process was discovered, there was a fascination with the camera obscura, with dark rooms built just so people could witness the magic of the inverted "picture made when light was passed through a small hole.
That we have such images is certainly both provocative and evocative, and I suppose it is good, but I also imagine it has a down side as does any technology. Does it heighten our experience of what is being photographed or diminish it? I don't know. I do know that with a photo I have one image; with a vivid description in words, I have my own image or images, the product of my imagination. Is either better?
I do plan to see this exhibit -- reverently. It's people's souls, after all.