© Jeff Mitchell / Getty Images 2021



LOOK THEM IN THE EYES | February 2021

On January 22, in the midst of the UK’s third national lockdown with COVID-19 cases soaring and a daily record of 1,820 people deaths recorded that week, the UK government unveiled their latest

visual campaign ‘Look them in the eyes’. The new adverts, which feature close-ups of COVID-19 patient’s faces coupled with targeted slogans are in no doubt designed to be hard-hitting. The arresting images appeal to us from our newsfeeds, pained faces of those struggling for breath, reliant on ventilation masks, stare out from billboards, shop fronts and bus shelters on the UK’s quiet streets. The accompanying captions leave no question as to who the images are targeted at –  they implore the viewer to consider their behaviour during the pandemic – “Look her in the eyes and tell her you never bend the rules”, “look him in the eyes and tell him you always keep a safe distance”, “tell him you really can’t work from home” and other iterations.

The campaign, which also includes a televised advert featuring COVID-patients as well as the NHS staff who are looking after them, was launched in the wake of the number of COVID-19 deaths exceeding the grim milestone of 100, 000.  There is no doubt that the images are ‘affective’, their shock value make them hard to ignore. Removed from any context, the faces depicted are both anonymous and unsettlingly familiar – that could be our fathers, our aunts, our neighbours, they could even be one of us, and so they appeal to us on an emotional level – in that sense they succeed in their intended purpose. 

While the government have been quick to suggest it is a lack of public compliance which caused the UK to have one of worst death rates globally, the worst of any G20 country, current social study data indicates that the vast majority of the UK public are following lockdown rules and the rate of compliance remains high since March last year. A recent study conducted by University College London found that some 96.2 % of people felt they were following the rules with some slight “bending” – and 56.4% said they were following the rules completely, compared with 96.5% and 63.5% during the first week of the March lockdown[1]. YouGov data from early January, the start of the third lockdown indicates that 85% of people were supportive of it, while 77% thought that the lockdown arrived too late[2].

This is positive news as of course it is true that we all have an individual responsibility within this, and I strongly advocate that people follow the rules.  But rather than simply a call to the UK public to continue obeying lockdown, this visual campaign serves a further unsettling purpose.

These portraits are quite literally, the human face of the pandemic. This is about the individual – both those who have fallen victim to the virus and us, the public whose actions have direct consequences to its spread.

Images of the distress caused by the pandemic are co-opted and reduced. The close-up framing of pained eyes and breathing equipment create portraits of suffering which serve merely to induce guilt at a personal level.  In doing so, the campaign individualises a wider failure. The images and their censorious captions successfully feed into the government’s prevailing rhetoric that the UK’s number of COVID-19 cases and consequent deaths are so high because of rule breakers and a selfish disregard for restrictions, rather than seeking to question the structural decisions and policies which have led to this outcome and the social, political and economic inequalities that have exacerbated the pandemic.

The crisis unfolding has been described by some as the tragic result of a series of government errors and ill-considered policies, which have driven the UK’s COVID-19 response[1]. The initial delayed UK response as the rest of Europe locked down back in March 2020 is alone is stated to have doubled Britain’s death toll from the first wave[2]. There are the PPE shortages, ignored calls for circuit-breakers and earlier lockdowns, confused health messaging and the calamitous policy to send the UK’s children back to school in January for one day amidst rocketing case numbers – the UK government has arguably repeatedly disregard SAGE advice which could have slowed the spread and prevented more deaths. While individual responsibility has a central role to play, and some have undoubtably neglected their civic duty to follow COVID-19 restrictions, neither of these points negate the government’s shared responsibility to contain the virus and protect public health. For many of those for whom social distancing is arguably a privilege, government spending on increased policing might have been better spent implementing an effective ‘Find, Test, Trace, Isolate and Support’ (FTTIS) system make self-isolating a viable option for vulnerable groups[3], and on financial support for those in low-paid, insecure jobs or on zero-hours contracts who have been otherwise forced back into unsafe workplaces[4].  While some in both science and the media have been openly critical of what has been described as the government’s ‘systemic indifference’ and ‘collective incompetence’[4], these policy decisions have often been largely unchallenged, providing an opportunity for those who made the decisions to shift blame elsewhere.

The campaign, developed by advertising agency Mullen Lowe, is obviously by no means the first time photography has been employed as a tool for political or social persuasion. We only need to recall images such as Dorethea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ (1936), the 1970s ‘Documerica’ works commissioned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s, Perter Souza’s ‘The situation Room’ (2011), or more recently the UKIP party’s appropriation of Jeff Mitchell’s refugee photo, to appreciate the medium’s capacity to shape public opinion and policy debate.

Much of the power of emotive persuasion that the medium holds lies in the notion photographs can capture an ‘immediacy’ or ‘truth’ based in the camera’s ability to mechanically reproduce the scene before it. And while the indexical nature of photography is increasingly understood to be much more complex than this, the implicit association of photography as an objective method of representation that can faithfully record, undoubtably contributes to its impact on the viewer. As a medium, photography has the ability to bring the ‘realities’ of a situation into the realm of our experience and understanding, to penetrate our consciousness where the media’s words and figures fail.  Images can vivify events, however, they do not on their own hold the capability to tell the truth. As John Grierson, one of the founding fathers of ‘documentary’ film, defines the medium as “the creative treatment of actuality”[5].

The term ‘spectacle’ is defined as “an event that is visually impactful in some way”: “something that attracts attention because it is very unusual or shocking”[6]. The emotive portraits form a hard emotional blow, a blow which ultimately acts as a divergence. A spectacle is created out of suffering and morality play – effectively masking what is truly representative – the underlying causes for the climbing death-toll. From an ethical position, the subject’s pain is appropriated for political gain in what Sontag has described as photography’s capacity to violate: “[…] by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed”.[7] As the viewer/subject gaze is inverted, the images demonise and blame – the imploring eyes shift the burden of guilt for the government’s failure to limit the number of deaths firmly onto the shoulders of the viewer.

And this strategy is working, as figures from a YouGov poll suggest 53% has been persuaded that society is to blame for the rapid spread of the virus[8], with another more recent survey stating that the majority of the public believe that people are taking this latest lockdown somewhat less (41%) or much less (31%) seriously than first [9]. In building a narrative where we are left confused and turning on each other, through a process of capitulation we are distracted from asking the important questions and allow those leading the response to continue to implement reckless policies without accountability. Our guilt, not theirs, is presumed “look them in the eyes and tell them you are doing all you can to stop the spread of Covid-19”, reinforcing the idea that this can be resolved through more policing and punishment rather than a move towards policies that care and support people during the unprecedented hardships brought by the pandemic.

Photography has been described by many as having the potential to be used as a ‘weapon’. As photographer Eddie Adams reflected on his infamous photo of the murder of a Vietcong by Saigon Police Chief during the Vietnam War (1968) “Still photographs are the most powerful weapons in the world. People believe them; but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths.”[10] And in this clever misdirection, as our government employs emotive photography as a weapon against us, appropriating public suffering for their own political gain.

With the blame firmly focused on the individual, those in power are able to absolve themselves of culpability and, over a year into the pandemic, they continue blundering onwards without a clear strategy or adequate provision of support for the public, shielded from criticism.  With Boris Johnson declaring in a recent briefing that “he takes full responsibility” for his government’s actions, could a more appropriate campaign be directed at the PM himself, asking him to look them in the eyes and tell them, with a figure of 112,465[11] dead and still rising, his government “did everything they could”? Many would disagree, and many more sadly aren’t able to do that.

[1] Goodier, M. (2021), ‘Is the public really ignoring Covid-19 rules?’, The New Statesman, UK, Jan 14. Available at: <https://www.newstatesman.com/science-tech/coronavirus/2021/01/public-really-ignoring-covid-19-rules [accessed 07/02/21]  

[2] YouGov, Jan 05 202. Available at: < https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2021/01/05/brits-support-national-lockdown-jan-2021> [accessed 06/02/21]

[3] Independent Sage (2020) ‘FINAL REPORT ON FIND, TEST, TRACE, ISOLATE AND SUPPORT SYSTEM’, June 18. Available at:  https://www.independentsage.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/FTTIS-12.42-160620-names-added.pdf [accessed 23/02/21]

[4] Busby, M. (2020) ‘UK coronavirus: confusion and concern over back-to-work advice’, Guardian, UK, May 20. Available at:   < https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/11/confusion-and-concern-over-coronavirus-back-to-work-advice> [accessed 16/02/21]

[5] Grierson, J. (1933), ‘The Documentary Producer,’ Cinema Quarterly, 2:1, p. 8.

[6] Merriam-Webster (2021). Available at:  <https://www.learnersdictionary.com/definition/spectacle> [accessed 06/02/21]

[7] Sontag, S. (2002). ‘On Photography’, p.14

[8] YouGov, Oct 12 2021. Available at: <https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/survey-results/daily/2020/10/12/9fc6f/2?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=daily_questions&utm_campaign=question_1> [accessed 06/02/21]

[9] YouGov, Jan 12 2021. Available at: <https://yougov.co.uk/topics/health/survey-results/daily/2021/01/12/02c9c/1>[accessed 06/02/21]

[10] Hudson, J. (2016) ‘What You Don’t Know About This Photograph Has the Power To Change Opinions’, April 09. Available at:<https://fstoppers.com/historical/what-you-dont-know-about-photograph-has-power-change-opinions-125776 [accessed on 08/02/21]

[11] UK Government (2021) Available at: <GOV.UKCoronavirus (COVID-19) in the UK’ <https://coronavirus.data.gov.uk/details/deaths> [accessed on 08/02/21]