"'Housing improvement in Ambarawa. The ribs (oesoeks) are properly placed on the keeper (doedoer)."
Photographer: Gerard Martinus Versteeg
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 was first recognised in Java in 1911 and established itself as a rural, endemic disease in both the bubonic and pneumonic form. Of key importance for the spread of the disease, Dutch scientists believed, was the role of the traditional Javanese house. Having discovered rat cadavers and nests hidden within the hollow bamboos used in house construction, “home improvement” was adopted as the principal plague control strategy for over three decades. While this intervention in Java’s built environment was hailed as a success, the process was time consuming and gradually abandoned in favour of vaccination following the development of the “Otten vaccine” in the 1930s. Minor outbreaks occurred in the second half of the twentieth century.