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Soul Imaging: The Image Captured 2008
Bea Denton

The magic first glimpsed in the eye of the camera has never quite left us despite photography's long claim to a scientific objectivity. It is as if we want to believe in the captured soul despite our faith in the material world. That the infinite detail of reality can be contained within the picture surface is something like a miracle and suggests perhaps that the rational materialist view is somehow incomplete. But when we look at an image of the world, a portrait for example, it is not the material fact we examine but the motives and emotions that are hidden therein.

If it can be said that we are the sum total of what we express in our lives then these images by Bea Denton are about identity. They are ciphers. Not clues to the identity of the subject but fragments of the collective nature that lies behind our delusions of selfhood. For there is indeed a sympathetic magic here, but this time in reverse - instead of the photo stealing the subject's soul this time it offers to show us ours...

The certainty of life within a horizon bounded by family, community values and geographical location is long gone. We locate ourselves in cultural space and time as we choose, seeking relevance where we find it and navigating by chance. Culture, that was once a linear expression of identity from past to present, is now merely an accumulation: a vast and bewildering pile of commoditised artefacts without definition in which reality and fantasy may be both equivalent and simultaneous. With little obligation to either conformity or community all identities are provisional and may be modified as circumstances dictate - the responsible parent may also be a wild party animal, a radical politician and an orthodox priest; the dutiful student, a dangerous terrorist.

But in order for us to converse, to engage with the world and with each other, we need coherence. We need to know first, that we can trust our own experiences and second, that others can believe us. Yet we live in a world of such artifice and conceit that it seems we can never be certain. Dialogue these days is littered with the word 'like' as if simply 'being' would not be credible. ' I was like, really scared'. Experiences such as the Holocaust, or '9-11', delivered in such detail with such ubiquity, so defy belief that first-hand testimony no longer appears to have any authority. If the 'I-witness' is no longer sufficient to verify personal experience, selfhood is devalued unless supported by a secondary agency outside the self. It has been said that Lee Miller, who first photographed Dachau in 1945, was so changed by the experience that she abandoned photography altogether, as if she feared her own eyes had been superceded by the camera lens.

Sixty years later, the camera is so universal and we are so used to 'real life' being mediated by its authority that we barely notice the intrusion: to receive a photograph by mobile from the north face of the Eiger may be less engaging than a half-hour fix of Reality TV. We are so used to seeing our virtual selves and their 'truth' in the virtual world it is as if we almost exist outside ourselves. Life has become a film, with the soundtrack of your choice, in which you the audience get to watch you the star act out your life.

The construction of Self, is a vastly complex process and subject to illimitable influences and constant change. However much we think we know who we are, our feelings, motivations and responses change as our environment shifts around us. As the artist Susan Hiller has observed "My 'self' is a locus for thoughts, feelings, sensations, but not an impermeable, corporeal boundary. I am not a container... Identity is a collaboration" - a collaboration between one's own material fabric, the past and the multiplicitous influences of the present.

In this context the adoption of a role on Reality TV offers the comfort of an identity sanctioned by the authority of The Media in which selfhood can be externalised and confirmed by the camera. The individual has become an observer of his or her own experience rather than the experiencing entity itself - both actor and audience. But, like a deal with the Greek gods, the package comes with a penalty clause and what has been offered may be revoked at a moment's notice by the pantheon of public judgement. What we the public see is a group of people like us, but crucially not us, making fools of themselves - the fool being at once the entertainer and the scapegoat, but also the truth-teller. The individual has been sacrificed for the group in a collaborative ritual in order that we might understand.

The Soul Images, these fragments of faces enclosed by the dark, have been reduced to a state of powerlessness in which they are emoting in tongues as if possessed by a spirit that will remain forever out of reach. They are records of experiences that can no longer be ascertained. Yet, decontextualised, they exist not in a vacuum but as containers for our re-identification. They are nothing and yet they point to everything and they can only do this by their separation from the individual. What is important is not the message of the emotion conveyed but that the emotive vehicle has been sacrificed - rendered impersonal and 'for all'. We are then like them.

   soul image - bea dentonImage from the series
Soul Imaging
Bea Denton 2008