Spirit Photography

My mother in law is a Spiritualist. Every week, she goes to a meeting where a medium claims to pass messages to the living from the dead.* Some years ago, she was given a spirit photograph, which she showed to my sister in law, visiting from Australia. I peeked over her shoulder to see a photo of an electric cooker with scorch marks on one of the rings. “Look,” my mother in law insisted, “Joan swears that’s the face of her dead mother in there.”

Sister in law examined the photo with care. “Bit of elbow grease, some Jif and a Brillo pad will fix that”, came the tart reply. “All I can see is a filthy hob that wants a good clean.”

And there is the best illustration of the two opposing views when it comes to this subject. You either see something there, or you don’t.

Spirit photography has existed for as long as photography itself. The Victorians were great fans and had no problem with claiming that photographs showed images of deceased relatives – or strangers, come to think of it. Nothing has changed, as even the most cursory glance of the internet will demonstrate. The only question is – how true are these photos?

At this point, I find the truth to be entirely subjective and depend entirely on how much you believe in life after death. One thing I have noticed about my mother in law’s Spiritualist friends is that they all seem to be elderly. I wonder if they have reached an age where, faced with their own imminent mortality, they become desperate to believe that death is not the end. Consequently, any evidence to support this, such as a ghostly image in a photograph, very quickly becomes a symbol of hope.

On the other hand, non-believers or people at peace with their mortality tend to see thumbprints, double exposures, reflections, glare or dirty marks where “believers” see faces or people. If the mind wishes to see a pattern there, it will.

Another problem with spirit photographs is that they are very easily faked – again, any cursory glance at the internet will confirm this, but it was a point proven long ago with the Cottingley Fairies. In this era of computer manipulation, it is all too easy to insert a ghostly image of Great Auntie Edna into a much more recent photograph. What is seen is not always to be believed.

However, some of the older photographs do make interesting curios, especially if the cameraman has managed to get the ghost to pose.

* I say “claims” because (1) I’ve never been to one of these meetings and (2) I have no idea what these mediums do.

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