"Plague laboratory of the Pasteur Institute of Madagascar around 1930"
The third pandemic of plague (in its bubonic and pneumonic clinical forms) struck the globe between 1894 and 1959. As Yersinia pestis spread from country to country and from continent to continent, it left behind it not only a trail of death and devastation, but also a vast visual archive. It was the first time that plague would reach and establish itself in all inhabited continents. But it was also the first time that any epidemic would be photographed. As plague spread from harbour to harbour, and amongst cities, towns and villages, so did photographs of the pandemic through reproductions in the daily and illustrated press. Rather than forming a homogeneous or linear visual narrative, these photographic documents provided diverse perspectives on the pandemic, which, more often than not, were not simply different from region to region, but in fact conflicting within any single locus of infection. Moreover this photographic production came to establish a new field of vision, what we may call “epidemic photography” which continues to inform the way in which we see, depict and imagine epidemics and their social, economic, and political impact in the age of Global Health.
Plague arrived in Madagascar in 1898, where it was to establish itself as a recurring epidemic disease, usually of the pneumonic form, among humans to our days. Attracting the attention of the Pasteur Institute in Madagascar, plague became the object of intensive study over several decades. Of key importance for the spread of the disease, the Pasteurians believed, was the custom of ritual reburial in the Malagasy Highlands. Efforts to ban or reform this tradition were confounded, whilst also coming under scientific doubt. At the same time successful methods were made to develop better vaccines, which led to a drastic reduction of infections in the 1930s.