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Contagion and Visual Culture

Tuberkulose undersøgelse – en borgerpligt (Tuberculosis examination – a citizen’s duty.) Copenhagen, Denmark, 1947. A shadow couple happily walks arm in arm. In the background, the abstract form of a modernist building, looking like an arrow and suggesting a statistical increase, is labeled Folke-tuberkulose undersøgelse (People’s tuberculosis examinations).Infectious diseases are dramatic, dynamic, and often unpredictable. They affect every individual and every population. They reveal the intimate exchanges between individuals and among networks of individuals. Through contagion, they link us. They have changed the outcome of wars, destroyed economies and societies, spawned social upheaval, shifted the demographic profiles of countries, and shaped history. And they remain with us, still making front page news as they exploit new vulnerabilities in human populations. Science has revealed many facts about microbes and infections, yet many mysteries remain.

Hans Zinsser in his classic book, Rats, Lice and History, published in 1934 wrote: “Infectious disease is one of the great tragedies of living things – the struggle for existence between different forms of life.” This struggle has inspired imagination and creativity of visual artists who have portrayed this continuing saga in many ways over the centuries.

Health posters provide a window through which the recent history of infectious diseases can be viewed. They show the diseases, the health problems, and the public health responses that have preoccupied health leaders over the years. They provide context and a setting; some tell a story. Each is the product of a specific time and culture, though some images seem to evoke universal comprehension: skulls, skeletons, the image of the grim reaper, and the representation of microbes as ugly demons or monster-like creatures. Not surprisingly, several of these posters focus on some of the gravest infectious disease scourges of the 20th century, including tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. Sadly, these two infections remain major killers globally.

Posters have been used to educate the public in ways to prevent the spread of infections. The images and words on the posters are intended to convey facts, to change perceptions, to alter behavior, to gain support for a particular approach, and sometimes to elicit donations. In posters one can see a fusion of art, culture, science, religion, and values. Posters from the period of World War II integrate messages about the war and link fighting infection with combating the enemy. In giving a human face to these infections, the posters helped stigmatize “the enemy.”

Different infectious diseases carry different moral weight. Influenza is just “flu,” but plague was the Black Death and tuberculosis the White Plague. Infections that carry stigma are typically those that are transmitted