The Most Powerful Photograph Against Vaccine Hesitancy, Ever (1953)

Peter Salk
© March of Dime Foundation

As a commissioned health science photographer, I have encountered a few cases of vaccine hesitancy (reluctance or refusal to be vaccinated) which I have documented. Being a person of visual communication, I am always searching for a frame that is powerful yet positive enough to break the hesitancy. I have not succeeded yet, at least not very convincing to me. But 67 years ago an unknown photographer already did it, that popped up during my recent photo research on global vaccination. And it immediately became my all-time favorite image against vaccine hesitancy. Let me tell the background story and narrate the photograph in terms of composition and visual literacy.

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Measles, War and Intelligence (1862)

Image © Library of Congress

While doing some photo research on historical archival images of global vaccination, I came across this simple yet powerful image that struck me. A very straight forward, properly exposed environmental portrait of a person without any dramatic appearance that was captured in September 1862. But the guy was not straight at all. To know about this person we have to dig deep into the history of the American civil war.

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Diphtheria, Dogs, and Delivery of antitoxins (1925)

Image © Central Park, NYC

The world is desperately searching for a vaccine to fight against COVID-19. And New York City is one of the worst affected cities around the globe. Let me tell you an amazingly positive story connected to the vaccination and the Central Park of New York City.

While doing some photo research on historical archival images of global vaccination, an image of a dog suddenly stuck me. A bronzed sculpture of the dog stands in Central Park at Manhattan of New York City – currently one of the worst affected cities by COVID-19 in the world.

Balto, the name of the dog whom the Central Park is mentioned as “a bronzed hero, near the Tisch Children’s Zoo, who stands ready to accept hugs and offer rides to his admiring fans“. To know Balto (1919 – 1933), we have to go back to 1925. An outbreak of diphtheria in Alaska. The Great Race of Mercy.

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Bell’s Opisthotonos

“Tetanus Following Gunshot Wounds” by Sir Charles Bell (1809).

This is probably the most famous image of opisthotonos, due to the extrapyramidal lesion caused by tetanus, created 75 years before the discovery of its causative bacteria Clostridium tetani. The painting was the creation of Sir Charles Bell (1774-1842), a Scottish surgeon, anatomist, physiologist, neurologist, artist & philosophical theologian, who gifted medical world the terminologies like Bell’s Palsy, Bell’s phenomenon, and Bell’s law etc. The horror and anguish of Clostridium tetani was depicted by Sir Charles Bell in his paintings, in which he illustrated a soldier locked tight due to agonising tetany.

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The Messenger of God

Md. Shahdat, Community Mobiliser

“It was around early nineties. The polio campaign was going on in our block. One ASHA bahin came to my house. She needed help and it was a difficult situation. She told me the head of one madrasah was not allowing her to immunise his newborn child with “Do Boond Zindegi ke”. The child was already a month old after home delivery. It was alarming because if these religious influencers deny to immunise their children, then the entire community would become resistant. I went to meet that person personally. He had full of misconceptions and god knows from where he got those information. He was adamant and not ready to listen me. It took about a week to make him understand that the Immunization team was Allah-ke-faristey (messenger of God) and Allah send them to protect your child from preventable diseases, not to make your child disabled.”

Md. Shahdat 
Community Mobiliser, Garmukteshwar, Western Uttar Pradesh.

While India is celebrating its fifth year as a polio free country (since 2014), I feel privileged to celebrate my birthday to listen these unsung heroes behind the greatest achievement in the history of public health system of India. But quoting my mentor of public health, who always says, “The battle is on. The war is not over. As long as polio continues to happen in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”