How Pictures Steal Your Soul


Some cultures believe that if you take a picture of them, you steal their soul. The Aboriginals of Australia believe this, and I think some Native American tribes do as well. (I can’t find decent documentation right now, so we’ll just go on faith.)

Maybe subconsciously I’ve always considered the possibility. I’ve never liked being photographed. I hide in group shots, and my hands shoot up to cover my face if I’m the primary target. I even wrote a poem about being caught in hundreds of tourist photos.

Yeah, no cameras for me.

We see this in fiction too. Mirrors commonly trap souls. In Diana Wynne Jones’ Dalemark Quartet, the Undying can’t have their images captured (by painting or sculpture) without losing a part of themselves. Dorian Gray’s portrait doesn’t exactly steal his soul, but it certainly isn’t handing out sunshine.

I’m using this image/soul element in my upcoming series. I actually came up with the entire series from this one idea.

We woke before dawn to eat a hurried breakfast and leave our hotel for the last time. Our trip to Sydney was at an end. I’d already finished my bagel, so I lurked by the wall of windows for a last glimpse of the city. Not that I could see much, with the glare from the dining room lights.

And then I saw a terrifying image. My face was reflected in the window, but one side was drenched in shadow and therefore invisible. And, this being Australia, I remembered the half-forgotten lore of an image stealing your soul.

And in that moment it seemed entirely possible.

So! I spent a good chunk of the plane ride writing down all sorts of ideas (take that, J.K. Rowling!). A lot of it has changed through the years, but that one element of the reflection stealing the soul is still central to the story.

I’ve toyed with other variants too, including a ghost who was tied to the world through her portrait. I tried including her in my series, then a one-shot book, then a flat little novella. I abandoned her years ago as a cool idea with no home — but now she has one! You can read her short story in my anthology, Frozen Roses.

Do you ever think about this happening? What would you do if your soul was stolen?

(For my part, I would probably cry. Like a lot. I’m quite fond of my soul, I don’t want it wandering about, thanks.)

Jennifer A. Johnson is a newly published fantasy writer thanks to The Adventure of Creation anthology. She's still revising her first novel, but you can sign up for her free newsletter to pass the time.