Aura you experienced? "Paranormal" portraiture

Writer Jess Hemerly is currently a graduate student at UC Berkeley's School of Information. Photographer Jonathan Koshi is a designer in San Francisco.

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In 1992, a man named Guy Coggins combined Kirlian photography with biofeedback and introduced Aura Imaging photography. He began selling cameras through his Redwood City company, Progen, and according to the company's FAQ, there are only about 250 owners of these in the US. One of the owners is in San Francisco's Japantown. You'd miss it if you didn't know what to look for. It's a small gift shop called Sharaku across from the plaza, filled with Japanese textiles, figurines, and replica instruments. The only clue that something else goes on in this shop are yellowed, letter-sized, photocopied signs on the window advertising aura photography. But for $15 (plus tax) the old lady who runs the shop will reluctantly take you into the back, set up her Biofeedback Imaging Color Spectrometer 3000, and photograph your aura. And yes, that is quite a profit margin. According to the camera company's site, the cost per photo is about $3.30 (including film and "functional warranty replacement" charge).

A couple weeks ago, a friend of mine decided that getting his aura photographed would be the perfect way to say goodbye to 2009 and invited my husband-to-be and I to join.

There were a couple tourists in the claustrophobic shop, browsing the racks and shelves of knickknacks, but when we asked to have our auras photographed she took us straight to the shop's back room. This is where the camera lives along with a microwave on a table, a heater, some boxes, and a bookshelf lined with what look like old Japanese serial novels.

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In front of a white background screen is a bench on which she set the biofeedback boxes and motioned for me to sit down. The camera she uses is a big rectangular box with a window on the front in which I could can see my reflection pretty clearly. I placed my hands on the metal finger guides and sat as still as possible. I made no effort to think anything other than trying not to look like I had a double chin — my biggest fear in photographs. She made some adjustments with the camera and I half expected to feel something coming out of the metal under my hands, but after about 10 seconds she told me I was done.

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As she pulled the Fuji instant film out of the camera and set it next to the microwave, a dot matrix printer began to print an ASCII diagram of my aura and I – with @'s for eyes and letters representing the colors – and explanations of the dominant colors representing future (left side), experience (above), and expression (right). The blue above my head means I am best described by "depth-of-feeling," while the blue to my right means I "put calm into the world". My orange left side means I am coming into a period of creativity and sensuality. Not bad!

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After a few more minutes, she tore the plastic off the film and handed my aura photograph to me. The first thing I noticed was how colorful the image was. Then I noticed that the colors of my aura matched the colors of the hoodie I had on. Coincidence? Joe Nickell, Research Fellow at the Center for Skeptical Inquiry, wrote a piece for the Skeptical Inquirer in 2000 about his experience with aura photography, titled "Aura Photography: A Candid Shot." After having his first photo taken, Joe stepped away from the booth to talk to some students and decided to return and see if the photo came out the same. It didn't. In fact, far from it. The photographer suggested that he'd been "teaching" students between photos and that changed his aura. Joe was unconvinced, as I am not completely convinced that my aura wasn't based on my clothing.

Real aura or not, the pictures are far cooler than anything your mom made you have taken at Olan Mills.

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