Icons of Disease - The Visual Shift from AIDS to HIV

29 February 2016, 12:30 - 14:00

CRASSH Meeting Room

Part of the CRASSH Fellows Work in Progress Seminar Series.  All welcome but please email Michelle Maciejewska to book your place and to request readings.  A sandwich lunch and refreshments are provided.

Dr Lukas Engelmann

This draft paper stems from my upcoming book “AIDS Unseen” and is the last of three major chapters on the photographic, the geographic and the virological visual history of AIDS,    

The earliest pictures of the ‘AIDS-virus’, non-descript particles budding off a immune T-cell, gave an apparently unhindered gaze onto the point of the pathogen’s departure, or as it were, the primal scene where AIDS originates. Virological concepts and immunological models shifted the focus onto the virus’ agency, making visible what had driven the epidemic all along, and grasping the identity of what had so powerfully disarmed individual and social immune systems. Portraits of the virus refrained from making unusual symptoms, individual suffering, and social pathways of infection visible, choosing rather to crop the view to the disease agent. Seeing AIDS through models of its virus meant getting a glimpse of its nature before it appeared in a specific location or body as a disease, an epidemic or pandemic. It seemingly allowed a vision of AIDS as a subject, cleansed of cultural constraints, stereotypes and stigmas.

Drawing on the history of disease representations achieved through visualizations of their microbiological agents, in particular with respect to the example of bubonic plague, I argue that pictures of bacteria and viruses serve as neutral condensations of the multifaceted shape of communicable diseases. Making infected bodies and affected spaces unseen, the icon of HIV visualizes the contemporary and almost normalized stage of a past and partially forgotten pandemic; it resolves individual affection and social impact and orchestrates a way of seeing a disease in the absence of pathological signs and symbols.