Racialising disease: new syphilis resource in Victoria

Photos have surfaced of a new syphilis resource in Victoria and it is ~problematique.~

Update: activist and TIM co-founder Nic Holas followed up with MSHC and they advised the resource was produced in 2013 and ‘pulled’ after complaints.  Copies of the resource pictured below were picked up this morning, so it seems they are still distributing it.

Syphilis resource from Victoria via Bryan Andy pers comm 12 July 2016
Hat tip and thanks to Bryan Andy for posting this and sharing his critique.

Let me describe the image: there is a phone displaying what looks like a dating app with tiled face pictures. Five of the tiles display smiling Anglo, Latino or Mediterranean faces. All of the remaining tiles are taken up by a photo of a Black or Asian man, tinted deep red, with the username ‘SYPHILIS’.

Beside the phone is a speech bubble saying ‘OMG he’s everywhere! SYPHILIS.’ Below it there’s some text providing facts about syphilis transmission and a fine print warning ‘Brochure contains explicit photographs of male genitalia’.

I have so many questions. Who produced this?  Was there a reference group? Which community organisations were consulted? Was it focus tested?

The explicit photos of STI infection make me think that it’s probably from the Melbourne Sexual Health Centre, because they love that shit.  If you’re doing their electronic admission questionnaire and you say you’re not sure if you have symptoms, they will show you page after page of diseased genitalia.  I took a friend there for his first ever HIV test and he nearly walked out of the clinic in horror.

The other give-away is the creative concept is so hackneyed: iPhones and app screens and ‘OMG’ are so last decade.  It reads like a Boomer attempting to be ‘hip ‘n’ happenin’.

I asked about a reference group and focus testing because these are both opportunities to challenge groupthink.  You might have a clinician who’s also a gay man, but a community educator has a much better understanding of how other gay men are different from him. 

Similarly, when we focus test, we’re inviting a discussion among a sample of participants as diverse as we’re able to recruit, in order to get a sense of the range of different possible interpretations of the stimulus material.

But this wouldn’t have made it to focus testing on any reference group I was part of.

It’s always good to invite a marketer or designer or photographer or illustrator or cultural studies researcher onto your reference group.  That’s because we understand that images have plural connotations.  They don’t always signify in the way we might intend them to.

We draw on a mental library of these connotations — a symbolic history of the culture that informs how audience members might interpret the images and therefore the message.

Accordingly, I ‘read’ the images above and their accidental references in these ways:

  • If audience members view the man pictured as Asian and we’ve overlaid his face with a red tint, the unconscious associations that might be triggered include the visual imagery used in propaganda stoking WWII fears of Asian invasion of Australia.
  • If the man pictured is viewed as black, then we’ve got an accidental reference to Tuskegee, where clinicians left African American men with syphilis untreated for decades in order to study the natural progression of the illness. We’re also then referring to racial stereotypes of black men as hypersexual spreaders of disease, as seen in the moral panic about bisexual black men ‘on the down low’ last decade.

As an American colleague recently explained to me, American social science maintains a distinction between two competing systems of differentiation: race and ethnicity.  I mention America because I’m pretty confident this image was constructed using stock photography or a photo-composite taken from America.

In the image, the uninfected people are shown as Anglo or light-skinned ‘ethnic’ while the guy who poses a threat to them — and by extension the audience member — is depicted as ‘racially other’.

Racist discourse often draws analogies between immigration and plague, subjugated and racialised others as pestilence, and this imagery unwittingly reproduces that analogy.

I understand stigma, with Parker & Aggleton (2003), as the production of difference in the service of power — in ways that normalise unjust social orderings.

The pictured resource exemplifies this.  It visualises an association between disease, contagion and non-white race. In other words, it marks out non-white people as differing from white people by having increased prevalence of disease.

It would have been trivially easy to use the highlight colour to symbolise the disease and overlay it on multiple, racially diverse faces.  In other words, either the problem was not spotted or a choice was made to ignore it.  (See update at the top of this post.)