Capturing Leprosy (Hansen’s Disease): The Medical Gaze in America’s Tropical Empire

Adria L. Imada
History and Asian American Studies
UC Irvine

This project investigates scientific photography of leprosy (Hansen’s disease) and its critical role in the medical, sexual, and legal management of U.S. colonial subjects from the late-19th to mid-20th century. Centered on Hawai’i and the Philippines, U.S. colonial possessions that administered leprosy settlements, this work examines how photography medically racialized leprosy patients as non-citizen aliens. This modern medical gaze in turn influenced broader ways of seeing colonial populations as potential pathogens. In its most expansive sense, this work considers how racial difference and disease were mutually constituted through visual culture. The second major objective is to analyze how vernacular photographs taken by exiled leprosarium residents intervened in medicalized discourse.