Images, ideologies and ways of seeing beyond the pandemic.
Sophia Olivia Sanan
Candidate au doctorat (PhD)
Sophia Sanan shows the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the paradigms in which images are consumed. The author explains the change in the utilisation and perception in the last year and a half.

31 January 2021.

©Andrea Piacquadio

Images and truth: In around March 2020, as much of the world was in some form of COVID19 pandemic related lockdown, a photograph of a Venetian canal went viral. In the murky waters there were hints at life moving beneath the surface. The original accompanying caption claimed that dolphins had returned to the Venetian lagoon because of the lockdown and decrease in human traffic. The image was reproduced by the National Geographic which ran an article on ‘wildlife success’ fake news stories that proliferated online during the first months of the global pandemic. It is likely that the image went viral because of the enormous appetite for the evidence of a ‘bright side’ to the global COVID 19 pandemic: the flourishing of wildlife in our developed urban metropolises as so much economic and human activity came to a stand-still. The idea is a hopeful one and suggests a collective desire to witness evidence of some silver-lining to the layers of suffering and disaster wrought by the halting of the global economy in an effort to curb the pandemic spread. At the same time, the very notion of fake news is one that engenders anxiety. This anxiety seemed to be heightened during recent periods of lockdown, when billions of people worldwide were encouraged to isolate themselves indoors and knowledge about the world was accessed primarily through screens, and through other people’s visualizations of the world. There is of course the over-arching theme of climate change written into this story: the fear and anxiety that we do not know what damage we have done to our earth, and the hope that we will make it through despite ourselves.

As such, the image of the Venetian lagoon, with its explanatory caption about its misleading entry into the public domain, speaks of the complex footing that truth stands on in the contemporary production and consumption of images on a global scale. It also presents a concrete example of what Nicholas Mirzoeff refers to as the visuality of our emergent global society. It is not an equal society by any measure (online access too is unevenly spread), but it is a connected one, and images have emerged as a key currency in knowledge transmission, identity formation, population management and the manufacture of desire. Images emerge not only as a witness to reality, but as active agents in processing, shaping and directing that reality. A condition of uncertainty and crisis defines the present global moment. We sense that the system is broken, we are certain only that there is more uncertainty in store – and yet something needs to guide our collective and individual actions. This essay considers key arguments about the relationship between seeing and knowing – and uses them to raise and respond to two questions: what can photographs tell us about the ways that truth, beilef and ideology operate in our global visual culture? Could the experience of the pandemic shed a different light on our existing visual interpretive paradigms?

John Berger talked about the powerful union of the photograph and the caption (1982). The photograph is a snapshot – a frozen moment and a chosen aspect– it includes as much information as it excludes. As such, photographs carry ambiguity that beg for explanation – a guide to interpretation. The caption sanctions one specific interpretation – uniting the two forms of communication as the truth (Berger, 1982: 92). Today, as the Venetian image indicates, the photograph’s manipulability is no longer an insiders’ secret – privy to the few who take photographs or even fewer who analyze them. Instead, the duplicity of images is part of the accepted nature of the image. We are prepared at any moment to encounter the (no longer shattering) reality that what we see is not ‘real’. And yet images are still trusted as a way of gaining knowledge about the world. In a sense, the elucidating ‘facts’ are more critical than ever because the photograph-as-evidence is compromised. Mirzoeff argues that our emerging (and unequal) global society is a visual one. In the reality we inhabit, which trades more aggressively than ever in images, what can you know by seeing? The short answer is that despite ideological regimes that would have us believe otherwise, seeing is not knowing. According to Mirzoeff, “we don’t simply see what there is to see”, rather in the very act of ‘seeing’, we in fact “assemble a world-view that is consistent with what we know and have already experienced” (2015:11). There are institutions and powerful interests that clamor to shape our worldview and ways of seeing. In order to become better at identifying these interests, Mirzoeff proposes a way of thinking about how we operate in the world today via the notion of a visual culture – arguing that photography as an everyday technology has fundamentally changed the kind of world we live in and moreover, the ways in which we understand that world to exist. A visual culture is a manifestation of Manuel Castell’s network society theory. It is “the relation between what is visible and the names that we give to what is seen” (Mirzoeff, 2015: 11).

Pixabay ©Gerd Altmann

Images and suffering: Consider this image of a dingy crowded with people. Some of the people have life jackets, some do not. There is no caption, but a visual conditioning from the global media machinery steers the viewer towards the conclusion that these are migrants and refugees likely crossing the Mediterranean. Photographs like this are reproduced so frequently, providing visual accompaniment to articles such as Aljazeera’s piece on “Five EU countries agree new deal for migrants rescued at sea.” The text does not deal with the group of people pictured, but with the policies of neighbouring countries in dealing with people “like these.” Thus, the people in the photograph become illustrations of a reality that exceeds their particular circumstances. As such, this image becomes part of the documentation of a phenomenon that cannot be described as a crisis or an event that will pass, but as a powerful discourse utilizing metaphors of flooding and surging—an ongoing condition of global capitalism in a post-colonial world. Photographs of crisis and suffering can become signposts of our accepted reality. And yet, photographs and film footage can act as calls to arms against forms of oppression. Think no further than footage of police murders in the United States. We need to consider how such a photograph can at once be a representation of an accepted reality and a call to action, and to what extent we are in control of how we see things.

For decades, a global media machinery has familiarised the world with dystopic scenes from various parts of the world. From factory workers in toxic conditions in South East Asia to waste pickers in sprawling African metropolises: the specificity is not even important  in much of the media messaging as Dhaka can be replaced with Delhi, Nairobi with Lagos. Many millions of people live these realities and have no need to encounter images of suffering to understand suffering, and yet many millions of people only come to know of these realities through images. But the effect of this ‘knowledge’ is questionable. Susan Sontag is sceptical about the transition from the act of looking to that of doing. We know the things we know about the suffering in the world and continue to recreate the systems that create these conditions, partly because photographs can desensitise us to the pain of others and act as a political anaesthetic. Sontag argues that sympathy is a dangerous emotion when looking at a photograph. We imagine that by feeling sad or bad on behalf of the suffering we witness, we have paid our emotional and psychological debt (2003: 92). If we were to resist this false absolution, Sontag argues, and set aside sympathy, we might allow ourselves the uncomfortable “reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map of their suffering, and may – in ways we may prefer not to imagine – be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others” (2003: 92). If we view suffering with sympathy, rather than empathy or outrage or shame, we can maintain distance between ourselves, our worlds and ‘their’ worlds.

Informed by Sontag’s famous critique of the social effect of photography, I propose that images of human suffering have become part of the fabric of a collective understanding of the condition of late global capitalism. Much like jellyfish swarms act as metaphors for the world of homogeneity propagated by our current operating system. The legibility of these image types suggests a nihilistic acceptance of moral emptiness has come to typify the inward-looking logic of what many have termed ‘late capitalism’. Francis Fukuyama famously penned the notion of Berlin wall’s fall as the ‘end of History’ and the triumph of capitalism and free market over communism. It was an argument that expressed the teleological nature of the ideology of capitalism: the system is doomed, it will lead us to disaster, but we have absolutely choice because no alternative exists. Within this logic, this unacceptable state of affairs is acceptable as long as the inequality can somehow be externalised. This is where images can be of service, and where images can be disruptive.

Images, ideology and inequality: Ideology operates most effectively when it is disguised as people’s autonomous perspectives. As many social media theorists have suggested, in the age of surveillance capitalism, the consumption and production of images has become an intimate and yet public act. This is ideal ground for dominant ideologies like nationalism, to take root, and manifest the political in the personal. And yet, the very space of image consumption and production is animated by tensions and forms of resistance. In the first quarter of 2020, the WHO announced that more than half of the worlds’ population was under orders to remain at home.The unprecedented call for seclusion and withdrawal from public life made on billions of people across the world caused them to rely primarily on images to tell us about the ‘reality’ out there beyond their immediate spheres.. I saw viral videos of urban Italians pictured on their webcams while in lockdown isolation, speaking to the global online collective as a glimpse of our very own future. Never before had I thought a teacher in Milan would feel like such kin, never before had the simple fact of having a home to shut myself up in in seemed like such an immeasurable and unjustifiable privilege in my own city. It was a moment that rendered the world’s interconnectedness and inequality more visible than ever before. The idea of an interconnected world: of privilege and suffering as two sides of one economic system, is one that various activists, vulnerable communities and thinkers around the world have been talking about for decades – whether in relation to systemic racism, the flaws in the concepts of human rights or climate change. The reality of interconnectedness has been difficult to see partly because our dominant visual frameworks have been informed by powerful ideological forces that re-instate politically useful notions like nation state, citizenship, foreigners, poor, rich, developed, undeveloped, backwards, futuristic.

Johnny Miller / Unequal Scenes.

In 2016 South African Johnny Miller began to document South African urban spaces with a drone. The resultant images starkly placed privilege and suffering on the same map. The cover photograph chosen for Time Magazine’s May 2019 edition pictured here shows the wealthy Primrose suburb on the left and the informal settlement of Makause on the right. Here we might revisit Mirzoeff’s idea of a worldview that allows us to see certain things and un-see others. As much as the May 2019 Time magazine cover connects this reality to a particular national context, it is the global ubiquity of this visualisation of inequality that the photographer and his collaborators have continued to demonstrate: “it’s the very scale and unerring regularity across geographic regions which points to the systemic nature of inequality. This is not organic – this is planned and intentional disenfranchisement” (Miller, 2018). We might try and look away, and in our daily lives, the spatial and ideological frameworks that guide much of our behaviours work hard try to disguise this: “we live within neighbourhoods and participate in economies that reinforce inequality. We habituate ourselves with routines and take for granted the built environment of our cities” (Miller, 2018). Seeing things that technology is able to visualise can be an act of defiance of “the traditional power structures that keep these inequalities hidden so well from every direction except directly above” (Miller, 2018). The image of South Africa that Time magazine used also graced countless other magazine covers that year. The media uptake of this visualisation of inequality suggests something hopeful. The hope lies in the ability we still might have to be truly made anxious by the things we are shown. In Johnny Millers words: “if the images provoke uncomfortable feelings of fear, despair, or an unsettling realization of complicity – good. They are intended to” (Miller, 2018). The relatability of this image from South Africa – to scenes in Mexico, the USA, Kenya or India where the photographer and his collaborators have taken footage – suggest a new paradigm for visualisations of inequality and suffering that do not reinstate the paradigm of self/other, foreigner/ citizen in the same comfortable way.

Since the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, the term ‘apocalyptic’, or sometimes post-apocalyptic, has surfaced to describe scenarios in cities like Venice and New York – locations that have witnessed total transformation or encountered catastrophe in the 21st century only through Hollywood special effects. We are yet to find out how that visual re-calibration of the powerful as worlds apart from the suffering get absorbed in the global consciousness. The signs have been there that our linear, teleological notion of progress, expressed in concepts like developed and under-developed nations, which appear in our minds as discrete geographic and cultural entities, needs revision. Perhaps our visual literacy will catch up to us and we may begin to see what is there in new ways. Slavoj Zizek has written about the ‘event’ as a seminal moment in human existence that can come in a variety of personal and collective forms. It is a point of rupture after which nothing is the same. For Zizek, the event as an effect which exceeds its causes (we simply cannot explain it or cannot simply explain it) – poses a philosophical problem: “is an event a change in the way reality appears to us, or is it a shattering transformation of reality itself?” (2014:5). Either way, the consequence of this break from the norm is that it presents a unique prism through which to review dominant operating frameworks. Since we are thinking about the relationship between seeing and knowing, two key points emerge: if we view the pandemic as an ‘event’, it could allow us to see ruptures that had already been manifesting themselves in our accepted visualization paradigms. This might urge us to perform new ways of seeing that are not in fact a form of blinkering and might work to create a more equal and sustainable world.


  • Azoulay, A. 2019. Potential History. Verso: New York
  • Berger, J & Mohr, J. 1982. Another way of telling. Pantheon Books: New York
  • Miller, J. www.unequalscenes.com
  • Mirzoeff, N. 2013. How to See the World. Penguin Random House: London
  • Sontag, Susan. 2003. Regarding the pain of Others. Penguin Books: London
  • Zizek, S. 2014. Event. Penguin Random House: London

Image References

Sophia Sanan is a writer and researcher from South Africa. She is currently writing her doctoral dissertation which traces the political economy of historical African Art in Cape Town. She holds a master’s degree in Sociology and a professional background in African cultural policy development, education and art related research. She has taught university students for the last 10 years, in South Africa, Uganda, the USA, Brazil and India. Her published research work has focused on arts education, social justice and institutional racism and the social, cultural and material dimensions of African migration in South Africa and India. 

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Truth and Belief
JUNE 2021

Sophia Sanan is a writer and researcher from South Africa. She is currently writing her doctoral dissertation which traces the political economy of historical African Art in Cape Town. She holds a master’s degree in Sociology and a professional background in African cultural policy development, education and art related research. She has taught university students for the last 10 years, in South Africa, Uganda, the USA, Brazil and India. Her published research work has focused on arts education, social justice and institutional racism and the social, cultural and material dimensions of African migration in South Africa and India.