In this new column, I look for the spiritual, wellness, or magical cure that’ll definitely make me completely whole.
Logo by Tiana Dunlop
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
In this new column, I put my hopes in something from the spiritual, wellness, or magical worlds to see if it will cure my mind, body, and/or spirit. Because everyone wants a quick fix, and the only thing holding them back is the mission of finding the right one. Probably.
What is it? Aura photography.
Where did it come from? Having your "aura photo" taken has been a popular activity at psychic fairs and spiritual gatherings for the past 30 years. Your aura is an energy, invisible to the average eye, radiating from every person. The concept shows up in religions, like Buddhism, as well as New Age philosophies. You can trace the pseudoscience of the photography back to Russian scientist Semyon Kirlian, who, in 1939, accidentally discovered that an object on a photographic plate connected to a voltage produced an image of the object surrounded by a strange glowing contour. In the New Age 1980s, Dr. Guy Coggins brought aura cameras to the wealthy few, introducing his "AuraCam 3000" to the market.
Who's into it now? Fast-forward to our modern obsession with spirituality, coupled with a universal love of selfies, and aura photographs are in once again. Find them on Instagram accounts, sandwiched between West Coast desert shots, gazelle skulls against white bedroom walls, and two-line poems about delicate bodies and quiet revolutions. They’ve been featured in Goop (yes), Diane Von Furstenberg is apparently a fan (and one of my favorite artists), and Miranda July has had her aura photo done. There are a few major cities where you'll find someone providing this service—New York, LA, Mumbai—and some Insta-famous pop-ups that travel around the globe, announcing their arrival via the app.
What happened when I had it done? After eight months of spreading myself thin enough to feel like human jam, my internal energy was running out. Underneath, my mental health had been playing a new trick, and I was angry—at everything happening in the world, from abuses of power being played out around me, to mugs of tea getting cold. On a trip to New York near the tail end of that, my friends took us to an aura photographer.
There, I put my left hand on a box covered in metallic lumps—"biofeedback" sensors—which would pick up the electrical current on the skin at each specific acupuncture point. The idea is that the energy at each point in our hands corresponds to the energy at different bits of our bodies. Through a hooked-up computer, a double exposure image is made: your field of energy made visible over you. I stared at an ancient camera on a tripod and tried not to blink for about two minutes so I wouldn’t look drunk.
The photos look beautiful: Just visible, you’re surrounded by a halo of vibrant rainbow colors—deep blues, rich magenta, and acidic yellows. The colors on your right represent your past, the present is above the body, and to your left is the future. Mine was red, magenta, and orange, and a whole lot of black nothingness in my future.
The Chinese woman who took my photograph said "hmm" in a way that didn’t sound good. I was far too furious and anxious, she said, and if I don’t calm down soon, I will come into problems. I am a creative, so I think too much about romance (again, this was true: sex and love in equal parts) and I'm desperately keen to see a big project that I’d been working on for a long time come to fruition (also on the nose). I'm way too much "in my head," and because of that, I haven't been feeling 100 percent. Meditation was the recommendation. My friends' photos came with light palettes and positive feedback. I didn’t ask what the black future meant.
The night of writing this column, I sent aura photography expert Stephany Hurkos my image for a second analysis. Some of the comments were:
"You are holding in anger."
"Trying to bring love around you, but it’s not real."
"At the time you took this photo, you had low energy and were fighting off a cold."
"Who stole from you?"
There’s not a lot to argue with there, either, and now I have a bleak reading of my dating life to boot. Not sure what it is I've lost, though. I replied, "Stole?" and she said it was a long time ago. My innocence? My youthful complexion? Could be anything.
WATCH: 10 Questions You Always Wanted to Ask... a Tantric Sex Guru
Do I trust this? A month after my photo was taken, I went to a haunted-looking building full of legal offices and abandoned filing cabinets to put my aura under scrutiny for a second time. I was convinced that aura photography was legit—despite there being absolutely no science to prove it—but still felt curious about what it could do. The room was musty and filled with Jesus leaflets, books about healing with horses, and faded inspirational posters.
My halo this time was similar, but red, orange, yellow, and far bigger. Thankfully, the comments were more positive. I am in a very creative and intellectually stimulating time of my life! Activity generating energy is coming into my field! I’m a charismatic character for whom friendship comes easily! I’m ambitious, curious, and fearlessly want to experience all that life has to offer! "So much mind," the man said, his eyes wide.
But isn’t the red and orange all anxiety and bad stuff, too, I asked. He found this hilarious, nearly falling off his chair, and said, "Yes, of course," like I was a child asking if mommy and daddy loved me. "With more mind energy comes stronger chakras and more stress and anxiety. Anger, too." His suggestion: more fucking meditation.
On the way out I saw that, watermarked all over the aura papers, was the message: In accordance with UK law: "All goods and services are for entertainment only and are not experimentally proven." But the packaging all vibrators come in say "Sold as a novelty only," so I don’t know how much I care for the scientific authenticity of products that interest me.
I couldn’t argue with anything these photographs said about me. I couldn’t have got a better reading of my personality, feelings, and intentions if I’d had my therapist over one shoulder and my doctor over the other.
For me, the merit was in being seen; the pigment of my "feelings" made tangible confirmation of their reality. More than just an abstract anxious thought pattern being discussed in all of its boring predictability, there was a comfort in each bright splotch of my life being spewed back at me. Mostly, I liked that between the two photos you could see that my energy had expanded and changed. As both photographers reassured me, your aura will not always be one way. There is always movement in your energy, and movement means change.
This is literally what a trained psychologist tells me on a weekly basis when I’m unwell, for a lot of money, and it has taken two cute pictures of myself to finally absorb the message. Trust me when I say I’ve thrown $40 away on worse than a great Instagram post.
Follow Hannah Ewens on Twitter.