Based in the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge, the project Visual Representations of the Third Plague Pandemic has been collecting and analysing photographs of the third plague pandemic, which broke out in 1855 in Southwest China (Yunnan) and raged across the globe until 1959, causing the death of approximately 12 million people. As plague (Yersinia pestis) spread via rats and their fleas from country to country and from continent to continent, it left behind it not only a trail of death and terror, but also a growing visual archive on the first global pandemic to be captured by the photographic lens. Rather than forming a homogeneous or linear visual narrative, photographic depictions of plague varied from place to place, but also within single outbreaks as these were represented by different actors on the ground. Visual representations of the third plague pandemic played a pivotal role in the formation of scientific understandings and public perceptions of infectious disease in the modern era.
The exhibition focuses in particular on three plague outbreaks, of seminal importance both for the social life of the afflicted populations and for the scientific study of plague: the long plague epidemic in British India (1896-1947), the pneumonic plague outbreak in Manchuria (1910-11) and successive plague outbreaks in highland Madagascar (1921-1949).
Like colonial ethnographic photography, epidemic photography is poised between genres, capturing and containing a range of functions: documentary, journalistic and aesthetic. In attempting to document culture and reveal the world through a scientific lens, epidemic imagery also exposed the preoccupations and priorities of imperialism, modernity and colonial scientific culture.
The exhibition Photography, Alterity and Epidemics examines the role that photography played in pathologising racialised bodies and colonised territories, casting them as potential sources of contagion and catastrophe. The exhibition looks at how ethnographic and anthropological knowledge of “native customs” (hunting practices, burial customs, vernacular architecture, etc.) was integrated into this visual economy and implicated in the spread and maintenance of epidemic disease.
Visual Representations of the Third Plague Pandemic is an interdisciplinary research project funded by a European Research Council Starting Grant (under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme/ERC grant agreement no 336564. The team consists in Christos Lynteris (PI), Lukas Engelmann, Nicholas Evans and Branwyn Poleykett.
Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge and by the European Research Council under the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) / ERC grant agreement no. 336564.
This event is being graciously hosted by the Royal Anthropological Institute in London.