Essay for the GANYS Travelling Exhibition
by Adrienne Klein

Essay            The Collection             Notes             Acknowledgments

Dr. Jonathan Mann, who heads the World Health Organization's global programme on AIDS, points out that there are really three AIDS epidemics, which are in fact phases in the invasion of a community by the AIDS virus. Each community attacked by AIDS suffers the three phases consecutively.

The first is the epidemic of silent infection by the HIV virus, often completely unnoticed.

The second, after a delay of several years, is the epidemic of the disease AIDS itself...

The third is the epidemic of social, cultural, economic and political reactions to AIDS, which is also worldwide, and "as central to the global AIDS challenge as the disease itself."

-- Renée Sabatier 1


An AIDS poster is a warning call against a global threat. A group of AIDS posters reveals that this single unifying concern encompasses a variety of issues -- issues that are subject to the filter of distinct cultures.

Posters have evolved from simple printed notices to graphics dominated by full-color illustrations or photographs. Advances in worldwide communication have diminished some cultural distinctions, but graphics still exhibit regional styles and serve regional needs. The subtlety seen in posters from Eastern Europe, for example, reflects a legacy of graphics as a means of expressing political opinion in a covert way. By contrast, posters from developing nations are often direct and information-filled. Where access to electronic media is limited, posters are an important tool for reaching the public. In the industrialized nations, AIDS information comes to the public primarily in classrooms and on television and radio. When health information posters are produced, the style and polish of commercial advertising predominate; some AIDS posters are hard to distinguish from their commercial counterparts.

Independent of the quality of design, the quality of poster production depends on the resources that are available to fund a health education campaign. These assets vary widely, nation to nation. In 1992 the annual dollar resources committed to AIDS prevention per person ranged from $3.36 in Sweden to $0.01 in Nigeria. 2

AIDS graphics are most often issued by government health agencies, reflecting the huge public health threat and social cost represented by AIDS. Posters have also been produced by universities, churches, student, and labor associations. In North America and Western Europe, the HIV virus was first identified in communities of gay men, and organizations arose to confront the crisis. These groups issued posters to marshal support. Most notably, the organization ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) has produced searing graphic images that urge social action and condemn indifference.

The course AIDS takes in a population varies from region to region, reflecting the way the HIV virus is transmitted. Transmission occurs only through sex with an infected partner, the exchange of contaminated blood, or from infected mothers to their babies. Homosexual contacts, transfusions from an unguarded blood supply, and needle sharing among intravenous drug users claim many lives, but unprotected heterosexual contacts threaten the widest global spread of infection.

HIV transmission in Africa is largely through heterosexual activity, and most HIV-positive individuals are women, with devastating results for Africa's children. Posters from African nations often show images of children and families, an acknowledgment of the communal consequences of AIDS. It is interesting to note that families are rarely seen on posters from the industrialized West. Here, posters warn individuals to alter their behavior to lower their risk of infection.

Poster designers target groups of individuals as specific as barbers or prostitutes. Prison and hospital staff are alerted to their risk of infection on the job. Tourists are warned of the consequences of casual sex. Posters also dispense other messages: abstain from having sex, arm yourself with information, show compassion for the infected.

Without a doubt, the most common subject of AIDS posters is the use of condoms. Condoms are weapons in a serious campaign, but on posters they're a laughing matter, subject to word play and visual gags. The use of condoms is unacceptable in some cultures, however, and so is explicit reference to sex or drug paraphernalia in AIDS education materials. Designers are careful observers of their culture, certain to use tone and style that will attract their audience while remaining within the standards it imposes.

The images in this exhibition have been seen by thousands of people, speaking all languages, from all occupations and social classes. The AIDS pandemic respects no borders. While the posters reflect regional differences, they share a sense of urgency. With no known cure for AIDS, prevention through education is the only defense against its spread.  
Adrienne Klein, curator  

The Collection

Dr. Edward C. Atwater, a physician in Rochester, New York, began to collect AIDS posters to chronicle when and how the syndrome was seen as a threat. Posters are most often produced for immediate and temporary display; they are rarely saved. Dr. Atwater's persistent efforts at building an international network of contacts has netted him a collection of over 2,500 posters. While his intention is to provide an archive for the materials, he recognizes that the posters continue to educate only while they remain on public view.  


1 Renée Sabatier, Blaming Others: Prejudice, race and worldwide AIDS (Washington: Panos Institute, 1988), 3.  [Back]

2 Jonathan Mann, Daniel J.M. Tarantola, and Thomas W. Netter, Ed., AIDS in the World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 482. [Back]


Dr. and Mrs. Edward C. Atwater
The American Advertising Museum, Portland, Oregon
The American Institute of Graphic Design, New York, NY
National AIDS Clearinghouse, Canadian Public Health Association, Ottawa, Canada
Sara Kellner, Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, Buffalo, NY
The One Club, New York, NY 
The Gallery Association of New York State (GANYS)

Image Credits:  Top to bottom:  Australia, Of Course You Can!; Japan, World AIDS Day; Germany/Switzerland, Condom Helveticus; Switzerland, Blocca L'AIDS. Non Cominciare.; Niger, Nous Sommes Tous Concernes par Le SIDA; USSR, Parkbench/Gurney with Couple; USA/ACT UP, Ignorance = Fear.

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