Ghostly Encounters on Google

Spirit Photography, Reverse Image Search and Urban Critique in Baltimore

  • Samuel Gerald Collins


In 1866, Alfred Russell Wallace proclaimed a “new branch of anthropology” premised on the Spiritualist movement that was then exploding in popularity in England.  For Wallace, that anthropology would revolve around a growing body of highly disputed evidence of life after death.  While séances were one major site for the evidence of spirits, other technologies were also important to the new religion, including spirit photography, where ghostly figures or more amorphous, ectoplasmic emanations would appear in photographs next to (living) humans sitting for their portraits. Although these photographs brought solace to those missing their loved ones, they were also windows onto a future utopia; after all, the afterlife was a place where humans would continue to grow and develop into more perfect beings, beings who had come back to help guide their still living compatriots.  While these photos appear to us today to be clumsy double exposures, they suggest—along with their twentieth-century counterparts in Dadaist montage—a source of social critique.  And, indeed, Spiritualism was readily embraced by social progressives of the day for just these reasons.  Interpellating other images onto a photograph both breaks the illusion of objectivity in realist photography and opens a space of critique by conjuring absence and opening the indexicality of the photograph.  In so doing, spirit photography anticipates the challenges digitization, manipulation and algorithmically generated images raise to the indexical truth-value of the image.1  In this essay, I extend Wallace’s “new anthropology” to urban applications of reverse image search, where search engines apply a combination of indexed images, neural networks and machine learning in order to identify the same or similar images across huge databases.  Although mostly utilized for locating copyright infringement, uncovering catfishing or identifying locations, reverse image search also suggests a series of alternative “spirits” to photos of urban spaces.  In Baltimore, where my research has concentrated on issues of urban gentrification and abandonment, reverse image searches of Baltimore’s spaces reveal other possibilities—alternatives to urban divestment.  For example, a search based on a photo of a boarded up block of stores in West Baltimore generates images of bustling mercantile districts in cities all over the world.  Each of these images, in turn, is an argument against the neoliberal algebra that has laid waste to cities and compounded poverty and segregation.  By overlaying images of Baltimore streets and facades with these ghosts of other urban possibilities, I attempt to summon an anthropology of critical future possibilities.  In so doing, I identify another role for digital technologies: one that conjures absent possibilities into urban presents through regimes of Big Data that would otherwise be used for surveillance.  The end of the essay finds me revisiting Wallace’s “new branch of anthropology,” not to revive his call for the study of ghosts, but for our work to include spirits of the future in our critiques of present inequality.

Memories of the Past, ca. 1880., Library of Congress
Mar 31, 2022
How to Cite
COLLINS, Samuel Gerald. Ghostly Encounters on Google. Semiotic Review, [S.l.], n. 3, mar. 2022. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 27 sep. 2022.