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The story of the pandemic told in pictures

Interview with the semiologist Anna Maria Lorusso

Published: 27 May 2020
“My impression, as an academic, is that, during this pandemic, pictures have taken on an even more important role than they had before. As they have compensated for a narrative void,” comments Anna Maria Lorusso, Professor of Semiotics and Director of the First Cycle Degree of Communication Sciences at the University of Bologna, Italy. When confronted by an experience as abnormal as lockdown, we clearly needed not only scientific explanations, continues Lorusso, but also and primarily a “frame” to help us understand what was happening and allow us to “classify the present we were living in and the future we were imagining.” And these frames often came more from a visual language rather than actual narratives.

Social networks are an exceptional window for observing the individual and social narratives that are developing around this period we are living through. During the severest period of lockdown, iGuzzini invited Instagram users to express their state of mind through a photo in which light played a leading role. This social call #feelingwithlight collected over 800 images. The hashtag also allows a particular current of material to be recognised within this river of images created by millions of people confined in their homes all over the world. People who have chosen to fix in their memory and communicate to others the radical novelty of this moment in time by publishing what they saw or would have liked to see again.

“I think that in this period, pictures, both on social networks and in the general media dynamic, have played an even more important role than in the past,” says Lorusso. “Some of the images that circulated have become genuine icons and syntheses of meaning. To name just a few: the Pope standing alone in the rain, in front of St Peter’s; Mattarella, the Italian President, at the Victor Emmanuel II Monument in Rome on Liberation Day; and coffins in Bergamo being loaded onto army trucks. These images have found their strength in summarising the disorientation, solitude and drama of this period that words could not express.”

Our gaze has remained locked down at home for months, but we have also been allowed to peek into other people’s houses through video calls and – in the case of public figures and celebrities – through livestreams and TV link-ups. What have the effects of this been?

These images have broken down the previously rigid barrier between public and private space and our homes have also become the places where we conduct our social life. In this continuum that was created, the balcony played perhaps the leading role. Previously, it was a space where we rarely did anything public, but in lockdown it became a space for socialising, cultivating relationships and even demonstrating. A place for projecting messages to and for the outside world.
I think that in this period, pictures, both on social networks and in the general media dynamic, have played an even more important role than in the past. Some of the images that circulated have become genuine icons and syntheses of meaning.

Many private citizens and journalists have used photographs to publicly shame people breaking lockdown rules, and some have even exaggerated the gravity of the facts by using telephoto lenses. Was this just people being overzealous, an attempt to construct a fake image of what was happening or something else?

Our society will have to get used to people being more aware and more critical thanks to the use of visual devices that encourage and empower the logic of surveillance. However, the question of surveillance has become a central issue from every point of view, not just that of the images you have mentioned. We all have to keep our guard up and reflect on a dimension that in this period has become necessary, but which is also extremely delicate and problematic. It is something we have to learn to manage with great sensitivity. This mania for surveillance has certainly grown, but it was also necessary, because many of the checks being made were legitimate, considering the state of emergency we were in. When this emergency is over, though, this mindset has to change.

The advertising world had to react rapidly to a new, tragic and totally unprecedented situation. How did it behave?

I was initially curious and then pleasantly surprised by the way companies changed their way of speaking. Nearly all of them put their products in the background and focused in a way that was more pronounced than usual, on their relationship with the viewer and the values and emotions they share. I think this showed their awareness of the situation. For companies it is important to maintain a relationship with the public and never disappear from the media, but in this period, this relationship could not be based on anything but the drama that everyone was living through.

One particularly unusual phenomenon was how our emotions and expectations were focused on the infographic of the contagion curve that was updated every day. Is this the first time we have become so fixated on something like this?

In recent years, so-called data visualization has become a key theme in information and scientific communication, but up until now, it was mainly reserved for experts, as to interpret complex infographics you need complex instruments. But in this period, graphs met a general demand for information as, more than ever before, they gave an illusion of clarity and certainty thanks to their seemingly objective and scientific visuals (even if we know for sure that the data these graphs were based on was uncertain and unstable). Infographics exude a sense of reliability thanks to the language they use and by creating an illusion of objectivity. In this period, though, this illusion was perhaps even more untrustworthy than usual.

Are there any other images you were particularly struck by?

Yes, the image of SARS-CoV-2. On one hand, we were extremely worried by this new phenomenon, but we were presented with an image of the virus that was highly attractive and looked curious and charming, rather than deadly. Over this period, I think this image played a role almost of containment. It gave us a way of taming the invisibility and above all the negativity of the virus, and therefore made it manageable at both a rational and an emotional level. It is also interesting to distinguish between the virus’ attractive visual identity and its cold, impersonal verbal identity, characterised by technical terms, like “Covid-19”.
The story of the pandemic told in pictures