While we hunker down and practice social distancing, it’s important to remember that there are critical reasons to take the spread of this virus seriously. Call it what you will, Influenza, The Spanish Flu, or H1N1, the 1918 Pandemic killed upwards of 100 million people. Can images from this 100-year-old tragedy help contain the spread of COVID-19 today?
Warning: Images from 1918 pandemic containing mass graves and sick individuals to follow
World War One to Influenza
Photojournalism and combat photography was still in its infancy throughout the Great War. The action was often too fast for the day's technology to keep up with. The 1918 influenza pandemic should have been different, as its action moved much slower. In contrast to the press coverage of World War One, the pandemic's proximity to the war itself meant that the outbreak didn’t receive the type of media coverage you’d expect.
Notice that despite the rising death toll, the news still focuses on the war.
Influenza and Temporary Triage
Looking through newspapers today and seeing images of the rampaging COVID-19, I can’t help but think of the photographs that I’d seen in my grade 10 history class during the unit about the Spanish Flu.
The amount of images I found that showed just how fast misinformation can spread would be nothing more than a curiosity if they weren't so relevant today.
There is a compelling beauty to photojournalism that captures tragedy. I know this might sound like a death wish, but bear with me a moment. Perhaps it's the other side of the quote about tragedy and statistics:
A single death is a tragedy, a million is just a statistic.
The greatest photojournalists are able to turn unfathomable statistics into a tragedy that can encourage understanding, empathy, and maybe even action. The imagery coming out of the 1918 pandemic is no different.
For example, there is something reassuring about these large figures looking strongly towards the frame, prepared to continue to work to ensure public safety.
Despite the masses of sick in this photo from Fort Riley, Kansas, each individual in the foreground can be studied individually. It creates a connection, as if we can read each story in the faces of these men. Adding in the ethereal light floating over the rest of the frame makes this image feel like calm hopefulness.
Warning: The following images include images of mass graves.
Along with the more hopeful images, the 1918 pandemic also produced images of abject terror, images that we may unfortunately become all to familiar with if our communities don't decide to work together.
Do you think that there is anyway that these sobering images can help with the spread of COVID-19?
Image attribution provided where possible. All images in the Public Domain.