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Imagining the postantibiotic future: the visual culture of a global health threat
  1. Rachel Irwin
  1. Department of Arts and Cultural Sciences, Lund University, Lund, Sweden
  1. Correspondence to Dr Rachel Irwin, Arts and Cultural Sciences, Lund, Sweden; rachel.irwin{at}


This article is concerned with the visual culture of global health data using antimicrobial resistance (AMR) as an example. I explore how public health data and knowledge are repackaged into visualisations and presented in four contemporary genres: the animation, the TED Talk, the documentary and the satire programme. I focus on how different actors describe a world in which there are no or few antibiotics that are effective against bacterial infections. I examine the form, content and style of the visual cultural of AMR, examining how these genres tell a story of impending apocalypse while also trying to advert it. This is a form of story-telling based around the if/then structure: we are told that if we do not take certain actions today, then we will face a postantibiotic future with certain, often catastrophic, consequences. Within this if/then structure, there are various aims and objectives: the goal may be preventing further spread of AMR, building awareness or pushing for certain policy or funding decisions. These stories also serve to place or deflect blame, on animals, occupations, patients, industries and others and to highlight risks and consequences. These examples share similarities in the forms of story-telling and narrative, and in the use of specific data sources and other images. By using several Swedish examples, I demonstrate how global data are reinterpreted for a national audience. Overall, I argue that while the convergence of a dominant narrative indicates scientific consensus, this consensus also stifles our collective imagination in finding new solutions to the problem. Finally, I also use the example of AMR to discuss the need for a broader social science and humanities engagement with the visual culture of global health data.

  • popular media
  • television
  • film
  • medical humanities
  • art

This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial (CC BY-NC 4.0) license, which permits others to distribute, remix, adapt, build upon this work non-commercially, and license their derivative works on different terms, provided the original work is properly cited, appropriate credit is given, any changes made indicated, and the use is non-commercial. See:

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  • Contributors RI is the sole author.

  • Funding This study was funded by Pufendorf Institute for Advanced Study and the Department of Arts and Cultural Sciences, Lund University.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient and public involvement Patients and/or the public were not involved in the design, or conduct, or reporting, or dissemination plans of this research.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data availability statement Data are available in a public, open access repository. Most of the data are publicly available on YouTube or other online platforms. Video from Swedish Television (SVT) is available to researchers upon request.

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