The Problem with Ghost Photos

Photography is an art that anyone, of any skill level, can partake in. You don’t need an expensive camera- even some art exhibitions have been created by using a camera phone. The quality of cameras today, even the most basic disposable, is head and shoulders above those of 170 years ago- obviously so. We live in an age where at any moment, in any location we can snap near infinite numbers of photographs, of any and all things. Even naughty covert photography in museums is easy with camera phones at the ready. And it seems the popularity of photography has never waned since its invention.

Whenever new technology is developed however, it seems it is co-opted by those who believe in the paranormal. Recently laser pens have been incorporated into ghost hunts, and electricians tools like the EMF meter have been common for a couple of decades. So it should be no surprise that photography has become a major part of ghost hunts across the globe. But for me, ghost photos are a problem. Not because they provide definitive proof of the here-after, but because they are amongst the poorest of evidence for the paranormal.

That final statement may sound dismissive, it is not meant to be. Allow me to expand. I recently read this article from paranormal researcher Hayley Stevens on the relationship between Paranormal Researchers and Ghost Hunters. It mentions the idea of confirmation bias, and posits that we all to a lesser or greater degree fall foul of it, which is why in science tests are double blinded when they can be, and results are replicated and checked before being published (There are of course exceptions, but they are usually quick to be torn apart). A comment at the end of the piece suggested that skeptics are biased because we would instantly dismiss a ghost photo because ghosts don’t exist. This got me thinking a bit more about ghost photography and why I don’t believe it is good evidence for the paranormal.

We must start with a very simple fact- there are many, many millions of people across the globe who will accept photographs as good evidence of the paranormal. These numbers are unlikely to be made up entirely of dunces, and the assumption that believers in the paranormal are idiots neither sits well with me nor reflects reality. As with gods, there are many intelligent people who believe in the paranormal, and for what they consider sound reasoning. Some of the most popular explanations for ghosts such as The Stone Tapes persist because they sound like rational attempts at an explanation, that the Stone Tapes makes assumptions (the first being that ghosts exist) doesn’t detract from the fact that many people advocate it as a viable method for the creation and sighting of ghosts. It sounds quite sciency, and at least attempts to provide an explanation rooted in reality – even if I don’t buy into it myself.

And if ghosts did exist, then catching them on camera does not seem too much of a stretch. I do wonder however, how many people who accept photos as evidence of ghosts were convinced by photographs, or if they already believed and accepted photographs as supporting evidence for their existing belief. With no research to support any position, I can only make an assumption and that is I would be surprised if ghost photographs in and of themselves convinced anyone who didn’t already believe that ghosts exist. Of course there might be millions of people who didn’t believe, and that when presented with the picture of the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall suddenly accepted spirits as a fact of existence. However, as we know, people who already believe are more likely to attribute anomalous occurrences to the paranormal, or see them where nothing actually is, than those who do not already believe, it is reasonable to assume therefore that people who accept photographs as evidence of ghosts do so from a position of already believing.

So just what are the problems I have with ghost photographs as evidence of the paranormal? Well, there are several, and in no specific order they are:

  • Ease of Fakery

I believe – and it is entirely a belief, especially as there have been no studies to support it one way or another – that most ghost photographs are genuine in as much as the photograph has not been manipulated. Although Photoshop is not the most complex tool to use if you dedicate some time to it, not everyone will be willing to take that time just to fake an image. Most of the ghost photographs I have seen, or been sent, have tended to come with an almost embarrassed curiosity rather than a declaration that this is a ghost. During 2009 Richard Wiseman ran an event called the Science of Ghosts that, at its core, focused on finding the most convincing (to the public vote) ghost photograph in the world. Rather fortunately, the winning image was taken just a few miles from where I live and so I joined Professor Wiseman and Dr Caroline Watt as they looked into the Tantallon Ghost- also along for the ride was the photographer who was incredibly nice, genuine, and was as perplexed as anyone as to what might be causing the ghostly apparition (a lot has been written about the Tantallon ghost so I won’t repeat here, but it is easily searchable online). No one involved believed the photographer faked the image and I think he reflects the majority of people who take ghost photographs. To naturally assume everyone is lying says more about the accuser than the accused. But that does not mean fakery is not a possibility.

William Mumler in 19th century America was famous for fabricating ghost images using a double exposure trick for example. There are also numerous phone apps that allow you to create a ghostly image. Whilst I do not believe the majority of ghost photos are faked, that it is a possibility is something that we always have to bear in mind, even if it is just to dismiss the idea of fakery, we still need to accept there are fakes out there.

  • Naturalistic Explanations

There are countless natural explanations for ghostly images. Ghost Hunting communities seem to be split over the idea of Orb photos- with some accepting them as genuine ghosts and others realising what is most likely causing the image. Orb photos are fairly recent in terms of ghost images caught on camera, and you’d think that if they were ghostly in origin then we would have seen them frequently. Orb photos start to become common around the advent of disposable and later digital cameras. The lens is so close to the flash on these devices that any particle such as dust, water or even an insect caught in front of the camera becomes a blurry orb like entity.

We then have problems relating to exposure times- long exposures are not uncommon, and in early cameras where the exposure time is quite a while anyone walking into shot can leave a spooky after image. Ghostly streaks of light are usually caused when taking photos at night and moving the camera too soon as the aperture stays open slightly longer in the dark.

Double exposures, as mentioned above, are other ways to create ghostly images but can be done mistakenly.

Then we have pareidolia, which is where we see recognisable patterns within an otherwise jumble of information or poor lighting or even in clouds, and many frightening images on film may have that explanation.

Then there are issues around light getting onto the film as seems the most likely explanation of the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall

One of the most interesting types of natural explanation is that of photographer blindness. It is not uncommon to hear people exclaim that no other person was in the shot when the photo was taken- yet this ignores the fact that we tend not to notice what we don’t notice, if that makes any sense. We are usually focusing entirely on the subject of the photograph that we can ignore entire people. An experiment was done where two teams where tasked with passing a ball between them and we were asked to count how many times they passed the ball. We as viewers were so focused on counting the throws that we completely miss the person in a gorilla suit who walks through the ball throwers, stops midway, turns to the camera, waves and continues on his way.

If we can miss someone in a ape suit that spends a decent length of time on camera, imagine how easy it is to miss the person walking down a flight of steps in the background of an image, or standing behind someone that you simply do not notice because you are more concerned with snapping a picture of your child.

There are numerous other natural explanations for ghosts on camera, but an important thing to remember is even if we cannot find an explanation for an image, it does not logically follow that it is an image of a ghost- it is simply unexplained. To add a ghost explanation to something unexplained is to invoke “The Ghost of the Gaps”.

  • The assumption of Ghosts

This is probably the most important point as to why I do not accept photographs as evidence of ghosts. There is one huge assumption being made when we capture ghosts on film- and that is the assumption if ghosts exist then they can be caught on film. The assumption that Image A shows a ghost gets the idea of rational inquiry backward. We do not start with the end result that this is a ghost and then work our way backwards, we start from the position that if ghosts exist, what would we expect to see? It is just accepted by many that ghosts can be photographed, yet this brings up all manner of problem. For instance, why can a camera pick up a ghost yet the far more powerful human eye cannot? There does not seem to be a fixed answer for this, but a lot of assumption. Searching Google for a result seems to mainly bring up discussion forums rather than articles, as if the subject is being ignored- and I can see why, it is after all quite a big blow to the idea of ghost photos if no one can agree on why they may be picked up on camera but missed by the eye. If I were being generous I would suggest some might be photographer blindness, that the person didn’t see the ghost because they weren’t looking for it – much like when people miss a real person because they aren’t focusing. But that would not account for every single ghost photograph out there, considering many ghost photos are taken on ghost hunts it seems unreasonable to assume that every single photographer missed the ghost in their presence because they were focusing on … well … finding a ghost!

So the idea that ghosts can be picked up on inferior to the human eye cameras, but not seen by the human eye, creates problems for the claim ghosts can be caught on film and maybe a naturalistic explanation is the right one.

Another issue with the assumption ghosts can be caught on film is we make some logical leaps- we assume they can be caught on film, but before we come to that conclusion we need to ask if ghosts are able to be picked up by non human/ animal means, and before that we need to ascertain that ghosts actually exist, and before we do that we need to discover if any part of the human body can potentially continue after death. Basically, we are looking for ghosts in the wrong place- to find ghosts we need to look at the living breathing human body. And we have not – despite some anecdotes and yet more assumptions – discovered anything about the body that could continue in a way similar to ghosts or a spirit. All of the evidence that does get put out there – such as the experiment weighing a human body before and after death that apparently shows the soul has weight – tends to be flawed and rejected by the general scientific community. And this isn’t some conspiracy from Big Science to keep the existence of ghosts under wraps. No one in science would benefit from covering it up, indeed, those who we might accused of covering it up such as psychologists or biologists would be amongst the first to jump for joy over the existence of ghosts. The existence of ghosts creates a wealth of questions and science loves questions.

For me, the assumption that ghosts can be caught on film is the biggest problem with ghost photography. It is a post hoc explanation for an unexplained occurrence within an image- and here is the thing, there is zero wrong with something being unexplained. We don’t have to force an answer in there.

I adore ghost photographs. Some of them really throw me, and I am completely happy with “unexplained” as the answer. But for me photography is amongst the poorest forms of evidence for the paranormal due to both the alternate explanations and the logical leap that ghosts can be caught on film. It doesn’t mean I don’t find it fascinating though.

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