Photographic Plagues

Lynteris, Christos. Photographic plagues. Royal Historic Society. History in the News. 31 March 2015. En ligne : (consulté le 10 avril 2015)

Over the past year a steady stream of images from Ebola-stricken regions in West Africa has been pouring in through our screens and print media outlets. Photographs of the sick, the dead, and the bereaved. Photographs of anti-epidemic measures like quarantine, isolation, disinfection, and of compliance and resistance to them. The most common type of these images juxtaposes a white-overall, glove and mask clad health worker with a barefaced patient, corpse or crowd. A criss-cross between medical, disaster, forensic and ethnographic visual genres, this is but the latest example of what we may call epidemic photography.

The global dissemination of Ebola photographs makes this an opportune moment to raise questions about the representational politics of this photographic genre. It is also an opportunity to ask what this allows us to know about infectious disease. Visual and anthropological studies of epidemic photography as practiced today are a vital part of this task. Yet in order to unravel the power and knowledge of epidemic photography we also need to examine its history. This is all the more pertinent as Ebola photographs seem to be uncannily replicating images of a pandemic with an altogether different transmission pathway, which unfolded under the auspices of high colonialism: the third plague pandemic.

The third plague pandemic lasted roughly from 1855 to 1959 and marked the first time that bubonic plague reached all inhabited continents, leaving more than 12 million dead. Plague made its first major appearance in the Crown Colony of Hong Kong in 1894, where the disease’s pathogen (today known as Yersinia pestis) was identified for the first time.

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Monique Abud (2015, 13 avril). Photographic Plagues. ChinElectrodoc. Consulté le 17 juin 2024, à l’adresse

Monique Abud

Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine, EHESS, Paris, France

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