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How Definitive Image Of Pandemic Could Help Explain Tragedy

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Historic tragedies can produce timeless images - images that define those tragedies and explain their scope. That is something Harvard University professor Sarah Elizabeth Lewis used to talk about with one of her mentors. His name was Maurice Berger, a cultural historian. And he died in March of heart failure. His husband said he had been suffering for days with coronavirus symptoms. Here's Sarah Elizabeth Lewis.

SARAH ELIZABETH LEWIS: And so the piece I wrote for The New York Times was, in effect, a letter to him about how images have moved us to act in times of crisis in the past and what we're missing by not having them right now.

CHANG: Lewis says photojournalists are collecting extraordinary images from this pandemic. But she says there doesn't seem to be one photograph yet that defines this whole moment.

LEWIS: Think about the image taken right after the Great Depression that we refer to as "Migrant Mother," taken by Dorothea Lange.

CHANG: Yes. I can picture the...

LEWIS: That's...

CHANG: ...Immediately.

LEWIS: Yes. And the fact that you can speaks to how long-lasting its impact has remained. You know, this is an image that was taken by a photographer hired by the government - the Farm Security Administration - to show to the nation what the conditions were actually like. And it had the effect of offering relief to those in California who were surrounding this mother and her family. That's one of many images, though. And as a historian, I have so many more in my mind's eye.

CHANG: Well, then tell me about the images that you think we are currently getting from this pandemic. What's the story that they're telling currently?

LEWIS: Again, I really want to salute the work that's being done because they're working around limitations that are, in part, there for good reason. You know, HIPAA laws, medical...

CHANG: Sure.

LEWIS: ...Privacy laws - right...

CHANG: Right. Right.

LEWIS: ...Allow for this dignity of the dead. And so to work around that, there are ways in which we're using kind of abstractions of bodies. And we're seeing other images of frontline workers, essential workers, healthcare workers. I don't know in the end that the image that will summarize the moment will necessarily be about fatality, actually, and death. Going back to the "Migrant Mother" example, what makes that image so powerful is her pathos, that kind of sense of this interior life that gives you just a way in to what it really cost, that Great Depression.

CHANG: Well, in the images that you've seen so far during the coronavirus pandemic, is there any one that has stood out to you, any images you think have effectively conveyed the monumental loss of this pandemic, at least to some degree?

LEWIS: The image that really forced me to write the article was one taken by George Steinmetz via a drone over Hart Island. And...

CHANG: A mass burial site, basically.

LEWIS: Exactly. And what gripped me about the image wasn't necessarily the compositional master. He was intercepted. The drone was intercepted. So he only got off about three shots. But it was the attempt that really got me, the fact that he had the vision - he understood that we needed to see this. And it made me wonder what other images were being curtailed...

CHANG: Yeah.

LEWIS: ...What things were not - we weren't able to see.

CHANG: You know, we're on the cusp of a grim milestone - a hundred thousand people in the U.S. dead from the coronavirus. And yet, you know, at the same time, there is a debate in this country about whether cities should be reopening, about whether people should be even wearing masks in public. Do you think if there were more images out there of personal suffering - do you think that those debates would take a different shape?

LEWIS: As a historian, I do. History teaches us this. Whether it's in the context of the civil rights movement or pandemics, we know that images that emerge as emblems of sacrifice have moved masses to act. Now, I think they do this because - and this is what I was grappling with as I wrote - they do force us to contend with the unspeakable. The New York Times on Sunday created a front page that really used...

CHANG: Yes.

LEWIS: ...Data to almost create an image.

CHANG: An image - exactly. And we should describe for people - you know...

LEWIS: Oh, yeah.

CHANG: ...To mark a hundred thousand deaths in the U.S., The New York Times printed a list of - what was it? - about a thousand names on the front page.

LEWIS: Yeah. So - and in doing that, I think what it also signals is a really important point that I don't want to get lost here. We might be in the midst of a pandemic that can't be represented by an image. It might be just on that kind of a scale.

CHANG: Sarah Elizabeth Lewis is an associate professor at Harvard University. She teaches history of art and architecture and African and African American studies.

This was a fascinating conversation. Thank you very much.

LEWIS: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.