A poster with repeated images of a Black woman with sunglasses and green hair with white text

AIDS Posters: A Community Tool Used to Save Lives

Circulating Now welcomes guest blogger Theodore (ted) Kerr to discuss his research in the AIDS poster collection at the National Library of Medicine and his experience guest curating NLM’s upcoming exhibition AIDS, Posters, and Stories of Public Health: A People’s History of a Pandemic.

A poster with a pink triangle against a black background and the title “Silence = Death” in white at the bottom
AIDS activism poster by The Silence = Death Collective, 1986

The first piece of AIDS culture that really captured my attention was a poster at my junior high school. I remember, outside the main office, a bold, 8.5” x 14”, colored background that featured a small group of diverse young people posing together, looking at the camera. Beside them were words that read something like, “AIDS: It is all our concern.” At the bottom of the poster, someone, maybe a school secretary or a volunteer from the local AIDS service organization, affixed a white sticker that had the typed-out address or phone number of a nearby health clinic.

I knew about AIDS, learning about it by watching the nightly news, daytime talk shows, special episodes of sitcoms; as well as gossiping about it with my friends; reading newspaper headlines and magazine articles; and even paying attention when it was discussed in class. But the poster was something different. Seeing the tape that kept the poster up against the office window in my school’s hallway made AIDS close. It was no longer just for movie stars and basketball players. AIDS was local.

Decades later, I am still moved by the power of an AIDS poster. For the last two years, I have been diving into the National Library of Medicine collection to curate the upcoming exhibition AIDS, POSTERS, and STORIES OF PUBLIC HEALTH: A People’s History of a Pandemic. During this time, I have been awed not just by the sheer volume of what is available, but more so, by the tactics that go into making an AIDS poster and how effective posters have been as public health interventions over the 40 years that the US has been responding to the crisis.

Illustration of four men viewing a poster that reads "gay cancer" in a storefront window
Illustration of men viewing Bobbi Campbell’s AIDS poster in the early 1980s produced by HealyKohler Design, 2021

What I have come to learn is that my experience as a young person with the AIDS poster was no accident. As a communication technology, posters rely on immediacy and intimacy that activists have been harnessing since before AIDS even had a name. In 1981, nurse Bobbi Campbell, who had one of the earliest documented cases of AIDS-related Kaposi’s Sarcoma in San Francisco, took photos of the lesions on his body, then copied those photos onto a piece of paper bookended by text on the top that read “GAY CANCER” and information about what to do if you had similar looking marks on your body at the bottom. Campbell posted what he made in the window of a pharmacy in San Francisco’s Castro District, where men—primarily gay men, many of whom had or would have similar marks on their body—saw the poster and began to pay closer attention to their bodies and the bodies of the men with whom they were close.

Campbell’s intervention into public space, using his body as a site of information, is what we may consider the first AIDS awareness poster and an example of the personal approach that has marked 40 years of community, AIDS-related cultural production, often in the face of systemic neglect, apathy, stigma, and discrimination. Throughout the exhibition, I highlight AIDS posters that came from people living with and impacted by HIV, for whom the poster was a means of expression and urgency. This includes the infamous 1987 Silence = Death poster (shown above) made by a group of friends over a winter of potluck dinners and emotional support in the face of a plague and a hand drawn work by an unnamed artist around the late 1980s, who gave the women in the local community something to think about. Hovering over a drawing of a trendily-dressed woman are the words, “No matter how good they look–: do you want to die for them?”

This relationship between poster, community, and HIV carries on into the 21st century. In 2016, artist Kia LaBeija was invited to make a new work for PosterVirus, an activist-led public art project that centers the voices of people living with and impacted by HIV. For her commission, she presents layers of self-portraits underneath text that reads “#undetectable.” The hashtag is an instruction on how to learn more about the word, a way for viewers to learn that “undetectable” has become an identity marker for some people living with HIV, used to describe how, once on treatment, their viral load can become suppressed to an undetectable level, resulting in better health and rendering the virus untransmittable.

In looking at all these posters, I am not only reminded that it has been a long time since I was in grade school, but that, as much as the world has changed, some things remain: AIDS is not over and correct health information from community members can save lives.

Through my curation of NLM’s upcoming exhibition AIDS, Posters, and Stories of Public Health: A People’s History of a Pandemic, I aim to draw attention to these ongoing truths, while honoring AIDS poster makers of the past and inspiring and encouraging AIDS poster makers of the future.

An AIDS poster cannot eradicate the epidemic but it can be a tool we use to end the crisis.

Below, you’ll find more resources on AIDS posters.

  • The online version of the upcoming exhibition, AIDS, POSTERS, and STORIES OF PUBLIC HEALTH: A People’s History of a Pandemic will be available soon, while a traveling adaptation will tour in the future.
  • For more information on AIDS culture and posters, check out After Silence: A History of AIDS Through its Images a book that traces the creation and impact of many iconic AIDS posters, written by Avram Finkelstein, one of the makers of the Silence = Death poster, and published by University of California Press.
  • AIDS as a Global Media Event: An intercultural comparison of posters and their imagery is a project curated by art historian Vladimir Čajkovac for the German Hygiene Museum.
  • Gay Stashing is a conversation between art historian Alex Fiahlo and designer Buzz Bense on the occasion of the exhibition Safe Sex Bang: The Buzz Bense Collection of Safe Sex Posters at the Center for Sex & Culture in San Francisco.
  • Surviving and Thriving: AIDS, Politics, and Culture is an NLM exhibition on the early response AIDS and AIDS activism, curated by Dr. Jennifer Brier.
  • Up Against the Wall: Art, Activism, and the AIDS Poster is a catalog edited by Donald Albrecht, Jessica Lacher-Feldman, William M. Valenti M.D., connected to the exhibition of the same name, which features HIV/AIDS Education Posters from the Atwater Collection at the University of Rochester. It was published by RIT Press.

For a look at the NLM’s long history of providing equitable access to HIV/AIDS public health information, as well as its support for biomedical research and its highlighting the historical, social, and cultural context of this research, visit NLM Musings from the Mezzanine, the NLM Director’s blog.

Image of a white man leaning against a wall
Photo by Cameron Kelly

Theodore (ted) Kerr is a writer, organizer, and founding member of What Would an HIV Doula Do?. He was the editor of the 2019 On Curating journal issue, “What You Don’t Know About AIDS Could Fill a Museum.” In 2022, his book from Duke University Press will be released: We Are Having This Conversation Now: The Cultural Times of AIDS (with co writer Alexandra Juhasz).

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