Visualizing Toxic Subjects

Containing Toxicity

View essay

Found Image: Imran Khan as The One with a Blue Throat

 This Pakistani Muslim League-Nawaz (PML(N)) supporters’ image of Imran Khan as Shiva visualizes a sensational anxiety around the minority figure in Pakistan. In this image, Imran Khan’s face is transposed as Shiva, a chief deity in the Hindu pantheon. Bringing together Hindu iconography and the likeness of Imran Khan, the image conveys a tension around religious minorities and electoral politics in the region. Moreover, the caption text works with the image brings to the fore a critique of personality cults. Before being elected as the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, was an internationally famed cricket player.
     At the center of the image in the foreground, spanning about a third of the frame, is Imran Khan’s slightly tilted face, but with light blue skin, thick gold earrings, a tilak, and flowing black locks with a thick top knot. Alongside are a crescent moon, drum, trident, and cobra. A snow-capped mountain range is pictured in the background; the Himalayas are Shiva's holy abode.  These signifiers come together as a visual metaphor, Imran Khan is god, is a Hindu god.
      The intent of the production and circulation of image appears to have been to stigmatize and mock Imran Khan and PTI's alleged support of and commitments to religious minorities in Pakistan. The religious minority figure in Pakistan both a source of sustenance for maintaining an idealized ethos of an egalitarian Islamic democracy, but also a reminder of the state’s incapacity to be egalitarian in practice. Here, PTI supporters’ alleged sympathies with religious minorities in Pakistan are a source of tension and even suspicion. When first posted on a Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif fan page on Facebook, the post included an instruction to "share [the image] and embarrass Imran Khan’s slaves [supporters]." But the image alone is not a clear mockery. Without the caption to contain the image’s excess, the visuals also come together to valorize Imran Khan as god, rather than simply mock his supporters’ or his party. The Urdu caption text overlayed onto the bottom of the image in a light blue font with a black outline constrains the visuals and guides the viewer’s interpretation: “PTI supporters have no faith or honesty, all they have is God Imran (Yuthio ka deen hai na imaan hai, unka sirf Imran bhagwan hain)” The text then works with the visuals to make the image toxic for religious minorities in Pakistan. A comparison of Shiva and Imran is connected with a comparison between PTI supporters and Hindus, who, in their idolatrous devotion of Shiva, among other gods, are pagan and irrational within a dominant Muslim framework. The image caches on such operative stereotypes about Hindus in Pakistan. As such, leading minority Hindu politicians and leaders in Pakistan immediately reacted to a visual substitution of a Hindu icon with the likeness of Imran Khan and worried about the unrestricted spread of an image they considered offensive to religious minorities. 
     Neelakanta, or “the one with a blue throat" is an epithet for Shiva. In Hindu mythology, Shiva is blue because he swallowed halahala, a deadly poison that emerged during an episodic churning of the ocean in a joint effort by devas and asuras toward extracting a special nectar. The poison turned Shiva’s body blue, but the feminine energy of Shakti and Shiva together were able to control the spread and absorption of the toxin. Shiva’s light blue skin, oft rolled-back eyes,  and cross-legged seat offer a contemplative calm in contrast to the deadly toxicity of halahala. The containment of toxicity is an impressive feat. As such, the image also points to how toxicity, or at least the control of toxicity, is a form of power. How is toxicity connected to containment? Perhaps the uncontainability of this image given both its visual excess as well as its circulation on social media contribute to its toxicity.


As a native of Los Angeles, I have witnessed the smog worsen over the years. These photographs serve to complicate and add nuance to how people have conceptualized smog as a problem in LA. In the...Read more

Ruination or Renovation?: Dislocated Efforts Towards “Improving” Los Angeles’ La Plaza District

View essay

Created Image: Union Station / Old Chinatown

In 1931, the California Supreme Court upheld a decision which condemned the land where Los Angeles’ “Old Chinatown” stood in order to construct a public transit terminal in its place. It was in this moment that Union Station was born. Over the next several years, over three thousand residents of Old Chinatown – most of whom were Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans – were forcibly removed from their homes. The businesses and cultural landmarks that these residents called home were razed in the name of infrastructural improvement and modernity. This created image highlights the literal erasure of non-white residents from the city’s central Plaza. 

Created Image: La Plaza Cultura Village / La Plaza

Over the years, La Plaza has seen numerous government and private-sector backed projects aimed at “revitalizing” the area (the construction of Union Station, the creation of the Romanized Olvera Street, etc.). However, many of these efforts are thinly veiled money-making schemes, hidden behind the guise of urban renewal. Presently, construction is in full swing for La Plaza Cultura Village, a “mixed-use” residential and retail space occupying two city blocks just west of La Plaza.  The Cesar Chavez Foundation, a partner of the project, claims that the Village will “honor [sic] the history of Los Angeles and the diversity of those who built it in the area where that history was created.” However, it remains unclear how such “diversity” is incorporated into this trendy, ultra-modern project. Backers of the Village, including the Chavez Foundation, laud that 20% of the Village’s housing will offer affordable housing options for multi-family households. Again, the partners’ interpretation of “affordable” family housing remains problematic, as rent for the least-expensive housing option – a 429 square foot studio – starts at $1,925 per month. This created image juxtaposes the proposed layout for La Plaza Cultura Village with an aerial of La Plaza in 1924 – two years before Olvera Street was “created,” and over a decade before Union Station was built.

Created Image: Brunswig Building / Homeless Encampment

Los Angeles has the highest number of homeless people in the country, according to a 2016 report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Despite these sobering facts, the city still struggles with providing low-income housing to its poor and working-class residents. Though an emergency homeless shelter was constructed in the Plaza just a few months ago, the facility can only accommodate 45 adults. Such efforts, as well meaning as they might be, neglect the larger, structural issues of housing insecurities – such as high rent, low wages, discriminatory housing practices, and lack of access to health care. Furthermore, projects described as promoting urban revitalization often exacerbate the housing crisis, as the rent for the “affordable” housing options in the upcoming La Plaza Cultura Village start at almost $2,000 per month. 

Alli Morgan: Mapping Burn Pits

Dear Alli, I was really interested in the way this image correlates to your research on veterans and their usage of visualizing technology (as discussed in your critical commentary). I wonder if...Read more

Chae Yoo: Ignoring Toxicity

Spatial (Puerto Rico) and discursive (about the hidden atrocities) dimensions are well captured in this image. I wonder if there is another way to highlight the different discourses in the U.S and...Read more

Rachel Lee & Molly Bloom: Keeping the Children Safe

The image communicates a great deal about how the LASPD is constructing force and policing as a paternalistic type of care of children. It suggests that, it is for the own good of the...Read more

Chae Yoo: Visualizing Lead Risk

This image communicates the 'potential' of lead poisoning. I appreciated this image as an ethnographic object because, as the author points out, it represents the gap between reality and public...Read more

Subscribe to Visualizing Toxic Subjects