‘There is nothing less spectacular than a pestilence’: Picturing the Pandemic in Mass Observation’s Covid-19 Collections

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A 10,000 word article for a Special Issue of History of the Human Sciences on the subject of the Covid-19 collections of the social research organisation, Mass Observation.

What is to be gained by studying visual observation in Mass Observation’s Covid-19 Collections? What can we see of the pandemic through diarists’ images and words? Visual methods were part of the plural research strategies of social research organisation Mass Observation (MO) in its first phase, when it was established in 1937, but remained marginal in relation to textual research methods. This continues with the post-1981 revival of the Mass Observation Project (MOP) with its emphasis on life writing. With wider shifts in technology and accessibility, however, even when not prompted, photographs now accompany MOP correspondents' submissions. In MO's substantial Covid-19 collections, images appear in or as diary entries across a range of forms, from hand-drawn illustrations, correspondent-generated photographs, creative photomontages and screengrabs of memes. In addition, diarists offer textual reflections on Covid-19’s image cultures, such as the role of photographs in pandemic news media, as well as considering how the pandemic is intersecting with the visual in more abstract ways, from themes of surveillance and ‘Staying Alert’ in public health messaging to internal pictorial imaginaries produced as a result of isolation and contemplation. Positioned in relation to wider patterns in pandemic visual culture, including public photographic collecting projects that make explicit reference to MO as their inspiration, this article considers the contribution of the visual submissions and image-rich writing in MO’s Covid-19 Collections to the depiction of a virus commonly characterised as invisible.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)71 - 104
Number of pages34
JournalHistory of the Human Sciences
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 30 Apr 2023


  • COVID-19
  • Mass Observation
  • diaries
  • invisibility
  • visual culture


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