The struggle to document COVID-19 for future generations
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.
Scholars have documented the techniques by which subjects of distant suffering are brought closer — often by focusing on children or the elderly, the most vulnerable and presumably blameless victims of both political and natural catastrophes — and made the recipients of compassion. The work to aid Armenian survivors during and after World War I by the U.S. charity Near East Relief, for instance, marshaled powerful images of hungry and orphaned children in need.
At the same time, such efforts often work to maintain a critical distance and stress the differences between "those people" "over there" and the European or American public. This is not surprising, given humanitarianism's deep roots in colonialism. To save or redeem these figures of distant suffering often implied a civilizing project, one that potentially laid blame for suffering on tradition or cultural practices in need of reform.
As just one of innumerable examples, an early 20th century French postcard depicting a White missionary doctor tending to leprosy patients in Madagascar, then a French colony, conveyed an explicit message of succor together with an implicit story about the need for such paternalistic intervention. The very manufacture of such postcards for sale underscored the prevalence and durability of such narratives.
As we visually document and archive COVID-19, then, we need to remember how images can unfairly assign blame and unwittingly repeat tropes that reach back to long histories of exclusion. We have already witnessed how the semantics of naming the pandemic invoke deep-rooted histories of discrimination against Asians and Asian Americans. As COVID-19 continues to take a devastating toll on Black people in the United States, as well as Native Americans and other people of color, how we document this visually likewise matters.
Visually reducing the effect of such long term racial and health inequalities to dispassionate graphs threatens to dull the urgency of the pandemic's disproportionate impacts. Equally dangerous, however, are depictions that portray unhealthy bodies as the product of individual choices, rather than systemic or structural inequalities, thereby buttressing blame-the-victim rhetoric.
The archivists of the present moment must tread carefully, taking care to acknowledge and account for these devastating inequalities — not just those of race but also class, gender and geography — while thinking carefully about how to reduce the potential distancing or othering that certain types of images reinforce. As a first step, archiving projects would do well to actively solicit through outreach the words and images produced by those communities hardest hit by the virus. But these projects must go deeper to think about how to best represent the effects of a biologically colorblind virus that nonetheless has proved profoundly socially discriminatory.
To understand the complicated stakes of visually documenting human suffering, consider the story of Dorothea Lange's iconic photograph of the "Migrant Mother." The image, which has come to stand in for White rural suffering during the Great Depression and was used by Franklin Roosevelt's Farm Security Administration to promote better living conditions for migrant laborers, proves instructive here. Contrary to her usual practice, Lange failed to take down the details — including the name — of the woman and her children she photographed at the Nipomo pea pickers camp in March 1936. The identity of the mother, Florence Thompson, only became known in the 1970s, when Thompson wrote an angry letter to her local newspaper.
It took another two decades for sociologist Geoffrey Dunn to track down the family and learn its history. While Thompson originally hailed from Oklahoma, she was anything but a typical "Grapes of Wrath"-style Okie. Born in 1903 to Cherokee parents in what was then Indian Territory, Thompson and her first husband's migration was the result not of the Great Depression, but of the land dispossessions of native peoples that followed out of the Dawes Act (1887), the opening of the Cherokee Outlet to sale (1893) and Oklahoma's statehood (1907). Thompson's transformation into the visual symbol of White suffering erased that tragic history of native dispossession, effectively whitewashing the history of the Dust Bowl.
Documentarians of the present pandemic should heed these lessons, taking care not to lose sight of the longer histories of inequality through which our ongoing pandemic histories are being made.
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." This piece was written for The Washington Post.