The Struggle to Document COVID-19 for Future GenerationsRoundup
tags: historic preservation, photography, public health, archives, social history, cultural history, medical history, COVID-19, visual culture, ephemera
Pamela Ballinger holds the Fred Cuny Chair in the history of human rights at the University of Michigan. She is the author of "History in Exile" and "The World Refugees Made: Decolonization and the Foundation of Postwar Italy."
In the era of Instagram, how do we build a visual archive of the multiple forms of human suffering wrought by the covid-19 pandemic? As countless individuals across the world document the impact of covid-19 on their own lives, universities, museums and other nonprofits actively solicit materials to build future collective archives of the pandemic.
In some instances, like that of the Bentley Library at the University of Michigan, the focus of the collected materials remains resolutely local, in this case documenting the campus experience. Other projects, like the University of Arizona’s “A Journal of the Plague Year,” adopt a much broader aim in their invitation to collaborators to serve “not just as historians, but as chroniclers, recorders, memoirists, as image collectors” in sharing “how the pandemic has affected our lives, from the mundane to the extraordinary.”
Although this call to document our current moment stresses the active role played by potential participants, it reduces the work of visualizing the pandemic to assembling images. Yet historians of the present do not merely collect images but also make deliberate selections and, in some instances, may even generate those images. As Susan Sontag noted nearly a half century ago, taking a photo “is to be in complicity with whatever makes a subject interesting, worth photographing” — including, sometimes, the subject’s “pain or misfortune.” Writing in the aftermath of shocking images from the Vietnam War and the famine in Biafra, Sontag recognized the power of such visuals but also the danger of becoming inured to them.
The histories of what Sontag called the “photographed images of suffering” offer us both tools and cautionary tales as to how we curate images of the contemporary moment. The strategic use of images to highlight suffering and to mobilize for humanitarian action dates to photography’s beginnings in the 1830s and 1840s. Abolitionists in the United States and Britain, for example, quickly adopted the new technology, using photographs to depict both the horrors of slavery and the humanity of its victims. Similarly, at the turn of the 20th century, the outrage over the atrocities committed in the Belgian Congo and King Leopold’s decision to give up his private landholdings there owed as much to the traveling lantern slide shows depicting mutilated bodies as it did to Sir Roger Casement’s report exposing systemic abuses in the colony.
Despite the absence of technologies like the Internet, such images spread with surprising speed throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries and enabled advocacy groups to reach a large audience.
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