Visual Plague: Image, Imagination & Imaginary

Tuesday 26 June 2018

A conference exploring the epistemology, ethics, aesthetics & politics

of epidemic imagery

Lawrence Levy Studio, The Byre Theatre, St Andrews, Scotland, United Kingdom.

Thursday 12th July – Saturday 14th July 2018.

The fifth and final conference of the Visual Representations of the Third Plague Pandemic project will examine the epistemology, politics, ethics and aesthetics of epidemic images. Focused on images, imaginations and imaginaries of plague throughout the centuries, the conference also engages scholars working on the broader fields of medical anthropology, medical history and visual studies so as to examine the wider context and consequences of imaging and imagining plague in human history.

  • To what extent is our perception of epidemics driven by modes, tropes and conventions of visualisation?
  • What is the relation between images of plague and its imagination in different social and cultural contexts?
  • How has the image of plague shifted through the centuries, and what is the impact of this aesthetic and affective transformation on epidemic response?
  • What is the role of plague images in the formation and negotiation of scientific knowledge?
  • Do religious, lay and scientific images of plague forge a common field of vision as relates to epidemic catastrophe and threat?
  • What are the ethical challenges and constraints of epidemic visualisation?
  • To what extent does colonial medical visual culture continue to inform our knowledge and imagination of epidemics?
  • What is the relation between the imagination of plague in early modern and colonial contexts and contemporary pandemic imaginaries?
  • How might the examination of the visual record of plague transform historical analysis of the disease?
  • What has been the role of epidemic photography in establishing the notion of the pandemic in both scientific and lay publics?

Addressing these questions the papers and round-tables of this conference will forge new historical and anthropological understandings of epidemic disease and their impact on human societies.


Thursday, 12 July 2018
14:00-14:30 Registration and Welcome
Huon Wardle (University of St Andrews)
Christos Lynteris (University of St Andrews)

14:30-15:30 Christos Lynteris (University of St Andrews)
Visions of Plague: The Emergence of Epidemic Photography
From SARS to Ebola to Zika, epidemics are proving to be one of the most visually charismatic events of the twenty-first century. But in which way does photography define the visual field of epidemics? This paper wants to argue that it is not, as may be expected, medical photography but an autonomous genre of visualisation: epidemic photography. To understand the characteristics, uses and impact of this photography, and indeed what sets it apart from the general corpus of medical photography, we need to examine the way in which it was formed, a century ago, in the context of the first chain of infectious disease outbreaks to be captured by the photographic lens: the third plague pandemic (1894-1959). Based on the photographic database collected by the Visual Representations of the Third Plague Pandemic project, this paper examines the emergence of epidemic photography with the aim to elucidate the traits, themes and contexts of this photographic genre, the way in which its examination equips us with new historical perspectives on individual outbreaks, as well as, the role it played in the formation and negotiation of ideas about the “pandemic”.

15:30-16:00 Tea/Coffee

16:00-18:00 Panel 1
Chair: Nandini Bhattacharya (University of Dundee)

1. Maurits Meerwijk (University of St Andrews),
Tableaux Vivants: Scenes of Plague and Home Improvement in Java
When plague was diagnosed in East Java in 1911, Dutch colonial authorities incorporated the hollow bamboo used in native house construction into the aetiology of this disease. Over the next three decades, an ambitious programme of “home improvement” became the signature government response to plague in Java. This campaign was extensively documented in photographs (and indeed on film) which were displayed in government reports, medical publications, and public exhibits in Java and The Netherlands. In this paper, I study a set of images that captured the spectacle of home improvement for a diverse colonial audience. Quasi-theatrical scenes show inspectors identifying weak points in the structure, labourers at work improving homes if not entire kampongs, and residents assisting in (or at least acquiescing to) this intrusion into their private domain. These semi-staged tableaux vivants do not just convey an aesthetic of labour and industry, they could also be said to constitute a “cultural performance of imperialism in everyday life;” a demonstration of responsible colonial rule and Dutch adherence to its “ethical” mission of “improvement.” What do these images tell us of the nature of plague control in the Dutch East Indies? And how did this genre of plague photography help perpetuate self-perceptions of Dutch colonial rule? What do these images tell us of the nature of plague control in the Dutch East Indies? And how did this genre of plague photography help perpetuate self-perceptions of Dutch colonial rule?

2. Abhijit Sarkar (University of St Andrews),
Reflexive and Reverse Gaze in the Photographs of Plague Hospitals in Colonial Bombay
Though plague in colonial Bombay has attracted considerable attention from medical historians of South Asia, yet, visual representations of the disease have received scant scholarly attention in the existing body of literature, though the plague outbreak in Bombay in 1896 was extensively covered by the photographic lens. Against this background, by critically analyzing a set of representative photographs of plague hospitals, this paper demonstrates how the new visual medium of photography captured, and thereby also revealed, social realities at play on the site of hospitals. In doing so, this paper also furthers the scope of plague photography by including the built environment of the hospitals that became a prime and repeated subject of plague photography, in addition to photographs of human subjects affected by the disease. This paper demonstrates how different meanings were constructed, and messages conveyed, through the careful composition of the photographs.

3. David Arnold (University of Warwick),
Photography, Cremation and Plague: Understanding a Visual Conjunction in 19th and 20th-Century India
The open-air cremation of the bodies of tens of thousands of victims was one of the most significant and striking visual ‘spectacles’ of the Indian plague epidemic from 1896 onwards, even though it appears in only a small number of contemporary photographs. This paper considers what the plague cremation images might signify both in terms of the epidemic itself (and the visual evidence of its impact) and the longer history of visual representation of the Indian dead and Hindu death practices over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It focuses on cremation images, including photographs, and the several meanings that can be ascribed to them—from western repulsion at the burning of the bodies of the dead, to sanitary and municipal sanction for this efficient means of disposing of the dead, to more sympathetic Indian (and western orientalist) imagery of the funeral pyre, and so to necro-tourism and the association between cremation of the dead and sati, the (self)immolation of Hindu widows.

19:00 Dinner

Friday, 13 July 2018
09:30-10:30 Roundtable 1: Political Aspects of Epidemic Imaging
Stan Frankland (University of St Andrews)
Ian Harper (University of Edinburgh)

10:30-11:00 Tea/Coffee

11:00-12:30 Panel 2
Chair: James Palmer (University of St Andrews)

1. Ann Carmichael (Indiana University Bloomington),
Pest House Imaginaries: Outside, Inside, Overhead
This paper reflects early-stage research, how modern scholars and city developers imaginatively reconstruct the physical, lived realities of lazaretto spaces. Plaguescapes from this one iconic locality occasionally serve as proxy for early modern plague experience in Mediterranean Europe, or are otherwise invoked to teach us about the continuity and change in hospital services across the centuries from the medieval to the modern eras. Because very little pertaining to the campgrounds and complexes built before the eighteenth-century still survives, in re-imagining lazzaretti, we unavoidably supply explanatory narratives to abandoned and vanquished spaces.
I will isolate some anomalous aspects of Italian lazarettos built before 1700. Though purpose-driven infrastructure, these extraordinarily costly extra-urban lazarettos saw very little use as plague hospitals and internment camps. Both planning and building them imposed prolonged material costs. Meanwhile, exacting rules and regulations for personnel and those interned elicited comparable bureaucratic architecture. Most today assume that all the money and effort applied had some positive, mitigating overall effect on plague within some larger historical perspective. More likely, the deliberate environmental constriction of persons in massive confinement areas exacerbated mortality crises attributed to plague.

2. John Henderson (Birkbeck College, University of London and Monash University),
Religion, Medicine and Art in the Time of Plague in Early Modern Tuscany
This paper focusses on the last major epidemic of plague in Tuscany, 1630- 33, at the time of the Grand Duke, Ferdinand II. The first main theme will be the strategies adopted by Church and State in Florence to placate the wroth of God, seen as one of the main causes of plague. Official devotion and major processions centred on three major ecclesiastical sites: the Cathedral; SS. Annunziata, which housed a major miraculous shrine; and S. Marco, where the body of St. Antoninus was kept in an elaborate crystal casket. Each of these churches became the site for important artistic patronage during and following the epidemic, including chapels, altarpieces, frescoes, costly silver candlesticks, and more humble ex-voti. The second half of the paper will examine these commissions to discover how far they did or did not represent disease, and how far these Florentine examples conformed or differed from those themes represented during epidemics of plague in other cities in early modern Italy.

13:00-14:00 Lunch

14:30-15:30 Roundtable 2: Epistemological Aspects of Epidemic Imaging
Silvia Casini (University of Aberdeen)
Luke Gartlan (University of St Andrews)
Jennifer Tucker (Wesleyan University)

15:30-16:00 Tea/Coffee

16:00-18:00 Panel 3
Chair: Prashant Kidambi (University of Leicester)

1. Lukas Engelmann (University of Edinburgh),
The ‘Danysz Virus’ and the Making of an Epidemic
In 1900, Jean Danysz, a polish bacteriologist at the Institute Pasteur in Paris, developed, standardised and distributed the ‘Danysz Virus’. The bacterial culture was advertised as a biological pest-control, a ‘poison, endowed with life’, capable of killing rats and other small rodents without posing harm to humans and other animals. A remarkable success in the global landscape of plague prevention, the ‘virus’ came out of extensive field research, structured by a unique corpus of early epidemiologic theory. In 1892 Danysz had begun a research program on the coordinated use of bacteria against rodents in French agriculture. While proposing a biological means of controlling mice and vole plagues, Danysz and his fellow Pasteurians grappled with the fundamental question of how to make an epidemic? After all, having identified and established bacteria as a necessary cause for disease in the laboratory did not explain the regular dynamics, the repeating rhythms and the characteristic spatiotemporal patterns of epidemics. In his experimental fieldwork, Danysz conceptualised the epidemic as cyclic system, in which both host and pathogenic agent were considered to be dynamic factors. The virulence, or infective capacity of bacteria, was commensurable to the population-dynamics of voles and mice. Based on his research, Danysz proposed a general epidemiological theory in which the capacity of the infectious agent to ignite epidemic outbreaks was considered to be in reciprocal relationship to its principal host population. Observed at the scale of large populations, the pathogenicity of bacteria to an organism was seen to be mirrored by the organisms’ pathogenicity to the bacteria. In the case of mice and voles, this model explained the cyclic occurrences of population growth and epidemic outbreaks observed in nature and demonstrates the theoretical commitment to concepts of symbiosis and homeostasis in early epidemiology.

2. Genese Sodikoff (Rutgers University),
A Grave Offense: Signs of Mortification at a Plague Pit in Madagascar
In August 2015, a middle-aged couple in the rural highlands of Madagascar lost seven family members to an outbreak of pneumonic plague, four of whom died in hospital.  Following the Ministry of Health’s mandate, the hospital staff disinfected the bodies and buried them in an isolated pit. For Malagasy people, the colonial-era rule that prohibits plague victims from being interred in the familial tomb induces profound guilt and anxiety. On a visit to the pit in 2016, this couple indicated the signs of abandonment that compelled the dead to haunt their dreams.  Malagasy believe that invisible adult ancestors, prone to vengeance, continue to participate in everyday village life. Yet they also appear emotionally tethered to their graves.  It follows that the plague pit, representing the exile and corporal mortification of ancestors, has a direct bearing on the welfare of the living. The visual elements of the gravesite–its location, the materials used, the absence of offerings, and the covering and arrangement of bodies–revealed an accumulation of insults.  The following summer, family members returned to pay tribute and transform the gravesite, all in hopes of appeasing the dead.

3. Samuel Cohn (University of Glasgow),
Plague in India: Contagion and the Transmission of Scientific Knowledge
This talk will begin with the old anti-contagionism/contagionism debate between Erwin Ackernecht and Margaret Pelling. Both arguments, I allege, remain largely lodged within the realm of intellectual history, even if both turned on whether contemporary politics and political ideologies determined the medical positions. The social history of anti-contagionism and contagionism has yet to be written. By removing the argument from the texts of medical giants and social reformers such as Rudolf Virchow, Edwin Chadwick, Southwood Smith, and William Budd and focusing instead on the effects of anti-contagionist or contagionist policies on large portions of populations, this talk will argue that the critical moments of this social debate arose later, at the end of the nineteenth century, and centred on yellow fever and plague, not cholera. The talk will then turn to disputes about plague transmission in India and the diffusion of scientific knowledge from findings of Western and Indian intellectuals to newspapers editors and activists such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak that rapidly spread to communities of urban workers and villagers. Much more than with cholera, debate, political protest, and street violence centred on the utility of quarantine that included humiliating strip-inspections, military search parties for plague victims, forced confinement in unsanitary plague camps, and the destruction of sacred art, monuments, and the homes of the poor. The laggards in accepting the new science on plague, ca. 1898–that it was a rodent disease that rarely spread person-to-person–were British bureaucrats charged with regional and municipal sanitation. They enforced contagionist ideas and policies of quarantine that reached back to the Middle Ages. In contrast to the mid-nineteenth century debate centred in Europe, the ‘anticontagionists’ at the end of the century were those at the forefront of scientific research, allied with radical forces from Indian newspaper editors to villagers, many of whom were illiterate. This clash of cultures produced the largest riots in the history of diseases, involving larger numbers of participants, greater destruction of property, and more deadly repression than any cholera riots, including those of the 1890s in Czarist Russia.

19:00 Dinner

Saturday, 14 July 2018
09:30-11:00 Panel 4
Chair: José Ramón Marcaida López (University of St Andrews)

1. Sheila Barker (The Medici Archive Project),
Painting Plague: The Visual Narratives of Europe’s Epidemics, 1500-1800
This paper explores the rise of an artistic (sub)genre characterized by the depiction of epidemic disease as a historical phenomenon, usually entailing the representation of multiple victims in a particularized setting. Such images of plague first appeared in religious imagery as early as the 14th century in the narrative scenes that ornamented a saint’s iconic image and that illustrated this intercessor’s miracles, charitable acts, or suffering. With Raphael’s print known as Il Morbetto, the theme began to appear as an independent subject with humanistic overtones rather than religious ones. In Poussin’s Plague of Ashdod, the genre reached new heights in terms of both its affective power and medical realism. Despite being a biblical subject, Poussin’s Plague of Ashdod seems to have been designed in light of secular notions of disease. Later on in the seventeenth century, the genre took on new purposes when the epidemic outbreaks they represented were local ones in recent memory. In these, the signs of the epidemic’s human carnage and the measures taken to manage it are often elided visually with the most recognizable architectural monuments of a metropolis. Throughout this talk, the varying purposes of the images will be discussed, as well as the subtle distinctions between religious and secular approaches to the subject matter.

2. Nükhet Varlik (Rutgers University),
Colouring Plague: Images, Emotions, and History Writing in Ottoman Society
The writings of early modern Ottoman historians, medical authors, and religious scholars offer a rich array of materials to explore the use of colors in descriptions of visual, sensory, and emotional experiences of plague. For example, while the fifteenth-century Ottoman chronicler Oruç imagined plague as “black riders,” his contemporary Ahmed Yazıcıoğlu referred to plague as “white death.” Likewise, the medical corpus of the time typically used colors to describe plague buboes and the skin of the patients. In a similar vein, descriptions of lived experiences of plague and suffering (both at the individual and societal level) also include references to colors. In this presentation, I will draw from this body of literature to reflect upon the question of how plague narratives used colors to elicit certain emotions. In particular, I will look at how different genres conjured up particular images and metaphors of plague, the symbolism of different colors in the Ottoman imagination, and how plague narratives represented the emotional landscape of suffering and death that underscored the anxieties of early modern Ottoman society.

11:00-11:30 Coffee/Tea Break

11:30-12:30 Roundtable 3: Ethics and Aesthetics of Epidemic Imaging
Richard Baxstrom (University of Edinburgh)
Amanda Sciampacone (University of Warwick)
Dora Vargha (University of Exeter)

13:00-14:00 Lunch

14:30-15:30 Closing Discussion

15:30-17:30 Long Walk

19:00 Closing Dinner