The Prophetic Faculty of Epidemic Photography: Chinese Wet Markets and the Imagination of the Next Pandemic

21 Dec 2017

Dominant trends in epidemiological research and medical journalism today share a belief in the “next pandemic,” a microbiological catastrophe of Old Testament proportions that threatens to annihilate humanity. Expected to arise out of a zoonotic spillover, in most cases a newly emergent or mutant form of animal-to-human influenza, the ground zero of the “next pandemic” is located in so-called wet markets, live animal markets in East Asia and China in particular. Focusing on photographic representations of wet markets during the SARS outbreak of 2003, this article examines critically the visual regime constructed around and supporting this outbreak narrative. Examining the temporality of spillover events and the dialectic between their visibility and invisibility, the article argues that the photographic visualization of points of pandemic eruption sets in place a prophetic faculty. Imaging spillover as an inevitable destiny and, at the same time, as having always or already occurred, wet market photography constitutes a new biomedical temporality that institutes human extinction as a never-completed but always in process end-event.