One day, when the story of the pandemic is being written, it may be a tale that is partly told in pictures: the desperation of overcrowded hospitals and body bags, the fear and isolation of the masks. And then the balm of a smiling person, one sleeve rolled up practically to the collarbone, and a medical worker ready to stick a needle in the upper arm. Log into a social platform and the picture – not to mention The Pose – is hard to miss.
The vaccine selfie has gone viral.
“I started seeing vaccine selfies almost as soon as the vaccines were available,” said David Broniatowski, associate professor of engineering and applied science at George Washington University. “It was an almost instantaneous meme.” And instead of slacking off, it just seems to pick up steam.
In fact, Jeanine D. Guidry, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University specializing in public health and health communication, said, “It could become one of the iconic images of the time.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it sparked its own bizarre sub-trend: the topless (or partially topless) vaccine selfie, as most often modeled by European politicians, but also the occasional celebrity.
French Health Minister Olivier Véran (white shirt unbuttoned and left side exposed) and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (blue button on one elbow, hairy chest on display) shared partially undressed selfies. Check out the partially undressed selfies of various British MPs including Brendan Clarke-Smith (plaid shirt pulled practically to the belly button with a button above the belt in modesty) and Johnny Mercer (shirtless at all).
Also the designer Marc Jacobs, who posed in sparkling pink shorts and lifted his pink shirt off half of his torso, his leopard coat and some pearls.
“It’s a look and a moment worth celebrating,” chuckled Vogue.
Perhaps that explains the choice of dressing: Many of us have been hiding inside for so long, feeling fearful and powerless that there is something liberating to undress. Or the answer could be simply that we forgot how to dress for public injections. Or the need to do something to get attention in the age of social media chaos. If everyone is taking selfies, how do you signal that your selfie is an important selfie?
After all, as Mrs Guidry pointed out, it is both a new and a very, very old phenomenon.
Before there was either the vaccine selfie or the topless vaccine selfie, there was the vaccine photo op. And before that there was the vaccine engraving.
April 1, 2021, 4:46 p.m. ET
Yes, it goes back so far, in part because as long as there was vaccination there was discomfort with the whole idea. (It’s hard to take a healthy person and inject them with a bit of disease to make them better.) And that means that health officials have made a conscious effort to promote them. Which was mostly about The Pose.
“Pictures are just very powerful,” said Mark Dredze, associate professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University, who studied how vaccination pictures are shared on Twitter. “People relate to them a lot more than they relate to text.”
For example, there are several engravings from the late 18th century by Edward Jenner, a vaccine pioneer and inventor of the smallpox vaccine, who vaccinated his own children and patients. One of the most famous vaccine photo ops is a 1956 shot of Elvis Presley, then only 21, and a full-fledged teen idol who looks dreamy with his sweater pulled up to get his polio rush. The year before, a number of French models were caught ready to receive their smallpox vaccine. They grinned and flashed a little on their shoulders.
In 1976, for fear of warnings of a huge wave of swine flu, President Gerald Ford posed happily in a vest and tie with the sleeves rolled up while he received his flu shot. And in 2009, President Barack Obama was caught in the White House with a nurse preparing to give the H1N1 vaccine. In all cases the theory behind the pictures was the same.
“In public health communications, it is generally considered good practice to have pictures of trusted executives taking their pictures,” Broniatowski said. The thought is, you see that an elected official is a guinea pig, the image invades your subconscious and suddenly you think, “Oh, I should do that too.” Follow the visual code leader.
And so it went on – until the current pandemic.
That’s because two things happened between President Obama and today. First, social media really took off. (It’s hard to remember, but the iPhone was launched in 2007, the same year that Facebook and Twitter went global. Instagram didn’t appear until 2010.) Second, as Ms. Guidry said, in a kind of understatement, “We’ve got a loss of confidence in.” seen in some areas of science and a loss of confidence in our political leaders. “
That meant it was important to see President-elect Biden and Vice-President-elect Harris take their Covid footage on camera, not to mention Dr. Fauci and Vice President Pence (and while it was important that President Trump was not captured for posterity who receives his shot, “it is almost more important to see friends and family being vaccinated,” Ms. Guidry said.
It’s Advertising 101, said Mr Dredze, to ensure that “people who see an ad can relate to what they see in the ad.” In terms of public health, it means that people like us – people of all ages, skin colors and sexes – will be vaccinated. And because we are all media producers and media consumers now, that is possible.
At a time when social networks have become one of our most important means of communication, the images are essential not only to get the news out, but to normalize and expand the experience – to convey it effectively.
The vaccine selfie plays a key role on the path to herd immunity. It’s no longer just an expression of vanity or humble lifestyle, but has effectively turned the crowd, funny or not, into proselytizers in healthcare.
While it is possible that all of these images of The Pose lead to resentment (not everyone who wants to get vaccinated can still get vaccinated), and the topless politicians may have received the most attention for their shots (in both senses of this word)) the selfie stream itself represents a turning point. One that everyone can see.