From seventeenth-century broadsides about the handling of dead bodies, printed during London’s plague years, to YouTube videos about preventing the transmission of STDs, public health advocacy and education has always had a powerful visual component. Imagining Illness explores, through various essays, the diverse visual culture of public health, broadly defined, from the nineteenth century to the present.
We spoke briefly with Imagining Illness editor David Serlin, associate professor of communication and science studies at the University of California, San Diego, about the future of the public service announcement. You’ll find a link to downloading the book’s captivating introduction at the bottom of this post.
You chose to lead the book’s introduction with discussion of the public health video “HPV Boredom 2.” How does this video illustrate the variety of information that Imagining Illness’s essays cover?
I think HPV Boredom 2 captures the gestalt of the moment. Not so much because of the public health threat that HPV itself poses — though it is certainly a serious issue to be reckoned with — but because the way that its emergence in the early twenty-first century provides a palpable example of how the meaning and significance we attach to a contemporary epidemiological crisis is transformed when it collides with a contemporary visual medium.
The fact that discussions in both popular and professional arenas about the diagnosis and treatment of HPV are being shaped by individuals making videos on their laptops while sitting in distinguished book-lined offices or at desks in their family living rooms or dorm rooms is not, to my mind, an insignificant component of contemporary health discourse. But while the “do-it-yourself” aspect of YouTube may seem like an unprecedented phase of public health discourse, I also believe strongly that the visual dimension of public health — how information is conveyed and disseminated to us, how rhetorical tactics are used to inspire or frighten us — is not unique to the contemporary moment. In fact, the participatory dimension of media like YouTube is only the most recent wrinkle in a series of long and complex visual histories that make up the larger history of public health.
One of the recurring themes found throughout the thirteen essays in Imagining Illness is that there is a dynamic tension, and often an enormous gulf, between the work that public health media are designed to do and what they actually accomplish, if anything at all. By using the video HPV Boredom 2, I was able to address both the visual culture of public health taking shape in the current moment and also show how such videos represent a point on a continuum that has been expanding since at least the seventeenth century.
David Serlin is editor of Imagining Illness: Public Health and Visual Culture.