Go ahead, Take a Picture Why Don’t Ya!

…or don’t. Is there perhaps something sinister about that phrase: take a picture? I was thinking about this today as I went for a run by the river, and passed a man taking a photo. As I’m wont to do, I imagined a situation in which he complained that I got in the way of his photo, and I fired back that he could easily wait a few seconds to take his photo, whereas it would interrupt my rhythm to stop for him. I soon realised that to really win this imaginary argument I’d have to know the correct translation of take a photo in French. I thought it might be faire une photo, but checked when I got home, and found that while that’s possible, prendre une photo (basically a direct translation of to take a photo) is better.

Anyway, that’s not so important. What is, is that after imagining this argument, I began to think about the phrase take a photo, and how it’s a little strange. English teachers very often find themselves correcting learners who use the verb to take in expressions in which we use more common verbs such as to have, make, or do (e.g. I took a coffee with a friend). Such a common phrase as take a photo/picture seems perfectly suited for using one of these common verbs, probably to make. After all, when you use a camera, you make a new entity. There’s now a photograph where before there was none.

But no, we say take a photo. Not only that, but it’s quite common to use the verb to capture in photography. You capture an image, or some great footage. This has spread into other forms of recording, and it’s become quite commonplace to refer to audio or video capture in the most mundane situations (as well as in the case of many creative arts, e.g. acting, painting, sculpture). But capture: that seems a bit extreme, doesn’t it? It’s just a photo, not a savage beast.

I wonder if there’s some link between our use of to take and to capture in these contexts, and the old stories of various cultures unfamiliar with photography being worried about their souls being stolen when they were photographed. While I suspect this belief was not so common as people make out, perhaps this idea has influenced how we talk about photographs. Perhaps it was very common for every society when first encountering photography to have some kind of fear of something essential being captured by the machine, and we now say take a picture as we were worried about our souls being taken, even unconsciously. After all, it must seem quite bizarre to see a machine which can create an exact replica of one’s self, if a little smaller or flatter. Encountering this when it was never previously a possibility must have seemed at least a little uncanny for a lot of people.

And technology had always been a little scary for us. Just look at how much sci-fi and how many horror films have played on this fear: at the moment I’m reading Stephen King’s Cell, about a mobile-phone signal which makes people crazy (seems a bit quaint now that they’re so commonplace).

We’ve probably moved beyond a fear of cameras now, but perhaps the way we talk about them reveals our former fears. Though they still have the power to terrify: waking up hungover on Sunday morning to see a notification that you’ve been tagged in ten photos on Facebook would make any right-minded person fear for their mortal soul.

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