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Visual Representations of the Third Plague Pandemic

Mid-Term Report Summary - VR3PP (Visual Representations of the Third Plague Pandemic)

The project has been investigating the visual production of the third plague pandemic, a global outbreak caused by the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis, which between 1894 and 1959 infected major cities and harbours as well as rural areas in all inhabited continents, leading to approximately 12 million deaths. Researching the global visual footprint of the pandemic, the project has shown how, as the first systematic photographic recording of an infectious disease outbreak, this led to the emergence of epidemic photography as a distinct visual genre and practice. Connecting both lay and scientific perceptions of infectious disease, and local responses to outbreaks with global understandings and policies regarding their connectedness, this has been shown to relate centrally to emergence of the notion of the “pandemic”. Furthermore, it has been shown to be of great significance as regards the pathologisation of urban environments, and (especially in the case of colonial contexts) burial practices. At the same time as involving a dynamic interrelation, unsettlement and reconfiguration of (and between) clinical, ethnographic, forensic, survey and military photography, the emergence of epidemic photography has been shown to be related to advances in epidemic mapping and diagrammatics, which were often concomitant with the rise of disease ecology. From creating total visual archives of urban terrains as “breeding grounds” of plague, to contributing to the rise and consolidation of the notion of zoonosis, the entanglement between plague photography and other modes of visualisation led to important social and scientific developments. Indeed our project has shown that the impact of turn-of-the-century plague photography is not solely of historical interest, as it continues to inform the ways in which epidemics, animal-human infection, and the threat of a global pandemic are visualised in scientific and lay media. The project has to date organised two annual conferences on the subjects of plague and the city, and corpses, burials and infection, where papers from a broad spectrum of the medical humanities and the social sciences were presented. At the same time project researchers have co-organised key international conferences on subjects related to the project, such as the Anthropology of Zoonosis (Collège de France) and Epidemics and Xenophobia (Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Centre) and presented their work-in-progress to 59 workshops, conferences or seminars in 8 countries across the globe. The project has contributed to a number of world-leading publications, including a monograph (in print) on the ethnographic configuration of plague on the Chinese-Russian frontier (Ethnographic Plague, Palgrave Macmillan), a special issue on anthropology, photography and medicine (Visual Anthropology), forthcoming peer reviewed articles, special issues and edited book volumes. The public outreach of the project so far is reflected in featured articles on its research hosted by world-leading outlets such as the BBC History Magazine and Der Spiegel.