the curse of mirrors and photographs

Mirrors and photographs of a person can be a curse. Why? Well, it seems to me that it is not natural for a person to see themselves from the ‘outside’. We see ourselves better and more ‘truly’ either from the ‘inside’ – or reflected in the faces and reactions of others to us. Other people, our friends and family, are the best mirrors. To see yourself in a mirror is to see yourself as an object – to split from yourself – to encourage yourself to be both subject and critic. And I believe that the healthy place for us to be is ‘in’ ourselves, looking out at the world.

Consider how alienating it is to see yourself in a mirror. If you are feeling happy with yourself, looking in a mirror can only serve to either undermine your sense of yourself, or else to promote a vanity that makes you become a caricature of yourself – that makes you behave as if you are wearing a mask.

Photos of us only serve to fix, without possibility of change, an impression of ourselves that is always going to be false. Even if – and this is rare – it captures a ‘good’ impression of us, it does so lifelessly. It can easily become a replacement for living memory – and a source of reproach for how we are getting fat, losing our hair, ageing.

At a twenty-five year reunion I attended, everyone responded with delight at seeing long unseen friends. Joyfully, it seemed that no-one had changed, or been withered by time. In any sense that is of value, this may well have been true. When someone brought out a photograph taken twenty-five years before, we were confronted with how we had really looked then. To our current selves, the people in the photograph seemed almost to be children. Our joy was tainted by melancholy.

I wonder if the injunction in Islam and Judaism against making representations of people (and animals) – that is always rather crudely interpreted as a fear of idols – of the Golden Calf, may be the wisdom that such images (of which I would claim mirrors and, certainly, photographs examples) are misleading and cause unhappiness.

8 thoughts on “the curse of mirrors and photographs

  1. I agree, but the truth of what you write is part of a larger ‘truth’ about photographs. Because they can offer a way to the past, can offer solace, confort, knowledge, have artistic merit, etc…

    Basically, I’d not say that the world would be a better place without ‘carved images’.

    Also, I wonder how much one’s feelings when seeing an older photograph has to do with how you feel about yourself in the here & now. I can look at a photograph of when I was younger, and still see the truth behind that photograph oneself a kick in the butt.

    Kind of the same as not liking to look in the mirror, because you don’t like your face, or it confronts you with a hairline which has receded past the horizon, or … To a certain extent we all have that, of course – I’ve gone from a dislike of my face (teenage years and onwards) to acceptance and (occasional) fascination. I still make grumbling noises, though, when my girlfriend compliments me on my looks……………..

    1. I was specifically addressing the issue of photographs from the point of view of the effect they have on the person they are of… the negative effect of such images in drawing a person out from their centre… This, ultimately, is a spiritual point. This is also why I linked it to the spiritual point being made in Islam and Judaism… Of course counter arguments can be made about the ‘value’ of such images… However, I wonder if in the claim (no doubt akin to urban myth) that has been made about ‘primitive’ societies, that, apparently, regard photographs as dangerous because “they can steal one’s soul” – perhaps there is actually some truth in this… Note also the powerful place that mirrors and reflections have in myth – this indicates that they have always been seen as powerful devices – and their power is rarely benign, but something of darkness… perhaps there is some truth in this too… Consider the importance that is put by us when judging the ‘intelligence’ of other species: namely, can they recognize themselves in mirrors… does it not seem curious that we should use such a phenomenon for judgement – one that actually can determine the life and death of countless animals…

      Finally, this debate that you say you have had with mirrors seems to me telling. If you had never encountered one, is it not likely that you would have avoided much of this angst? Indeed, without this history of mirrors and photographs, might it not be the case that, when your girlfriend complimented you on your looks, you would not choose to take the evidence of the mirror (that turns your judgement against yourself) as more important than what she is saying?

  2. I think it works both ways – in a way the mirror distorts, but can do so for good or for bad. Often, when someone feels bad about their looks, this is because of remarks made by others. The mirror -for me- was being confronted with it, but later it also served to get rid of that thought; a means to get familiar with myself, as ‘t were.

    Ultimately, you see in the mirror what you want to see, I think. In mythology mirrors are often used as a means to skewer one’s viewpoint, to look at it from another angle. Much villains come to their end because of mirrors – it is their own evil being warped back on themselves (so, basically, evil will punish itself).

    Indeed, the power of mirrors and reflections is often not benign, but there are also examples where it symbolizes the truth, or knowledge (scrying glass, that Elf in LotR). Powerful, yes… But not necessarily evil.

    1. I feel that the point I made earlier about animals recognizing themselves in mirrors is the critical one. What a mirror reflects (*grin*) is a certain level of ‘intelligence’ which in itself is power… and though this can be used for good, it can only do so through wisdom – I think that this is what is reflected in myths… So my point, recouched, might be: be wary of mirrors, because unless you are wise enough to control them, they will control you…

  3. Mirrors can be done without sometimes. However, they are useful for gauging how the world sees you – superficially. Unless we are hermits, what we wear, how we look, is read as a communication of identity as well. The key might be to recognize that looking in the mirror is also looking at a performance of a certain role – a visual roles (i.e. if you are wanting to look professional, is what you’re wearing conveying that). If looking at ourselves in the mirror undermines our centre, then our centre wasn’t stable enough to begin with. In the end mirrors only reflect – it’s up to us to analyze our own reflection.

    And photography I would argue from a totally different perspective from that of the periodized relic, although it does serve as that. It is at the end of the day, a means for various ends: artistic, political, visual, and documentary. Like the mirror, I dont’ think a photo unto itself can undermine our sense of self if we were not already confident enough. Moreover, objectifying the self is also a good thing sometimes – it keeps us in perspective with our interactions in a complex network.

    1. People managed (and, manage) perfectly well to express their identity through what they wore without having access to a mirror. My point is that a mirror profoundly changes your relationship with yourself… and that not necessarily in a good way…

      As for your comments on photographs – I wasn’t questioning the use of photographs in all the roles you describe, but only the effect they have on the individual… I’m not so sure that objectifying the self is as valuable as you suggest…

      It seems to me that my unease arises from this very ‘analysis’ of your own image. What does this consist of? Attempting to see yourself as others do? Surely, if that is what we’re concerned with, wouldn’t it be better to try and get this information from others…? Perhaps it is a delusion that your view of yourself (as it appears in a photograph or mirror) can ever bear any close relation to a view of yourself held by other people…

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