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These 17 Posters Powerfully Document The AIDS Epidemic Over The Last 30 Years

Only by remembering history can we better the future.

As we move further and further into the 21st century, more and more people in The United States are finally gaining access to affordable prevention and treatment for HIV. However, that is a relatively recent reality and while we're encouraged by the strides we've made, stigma related to HIV remains extremely pervasive.

In commemoration of World Aids Day, today, Dec. 1, 2015, The University of Rochester is showcasing a powerful collection of 6,200 AIDS posters created between 1982 and the present day that are meant to inform and educate people about HIV.

The impressive collection includes posters from over 100 different countries in 60 languages. The Huffington Post discussed the historical significance of these posters this week with Joan Saab, Associate Professor of Art History/Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester.

The Huffington Post: Why are these posters so important?

Joan Saab: The posters are important because they are a record of attitudes towards not just AIDS, but also illness, gender and sex, over time and space. They provide access to a past that's often overlooked and a way of making sense of history by visualizing it. In this way, they function as public art. People often think of public art as being something that's abstract or impenetrable or something that's sort of imposed upon them. 

I think it's important and interesting to look at more ephemeral types of things that encourage engagement. For me, these posters work in that way.

They're fairly inexpensive. You can plaster them all over. If somebody takes them down, you can put them back up. You can change them. You can add to them. They're a very effective way of grabbing people's eyes. We're very used to posters because we live in a world that's saturated with advertisements and images that are trying to sell us something. 

I think also -- and this is going to be a generalization -- there were a number of people suffering from or touched by AIDS who worked in the graphic design industry. This sort of public service announcement -- it's a genre of communication that's time-tested and it's something that they knew. I think it's also a way, at least within the 20th century, for artists to enter public discourse.

To me, it's interesting because posters are these temporary sort of throwaway objects. Very few people collect them. And I think what's so interesting about this collection -- and I find this with any kind of collection -- is, when do you start collecting? When do you say that this is something worth having? Because the collection bestows value upon the object, the posters, which for the most part are value-less.

But we now know that there are posters from different civil liberties unions like the Black Power movement that now have tremendous value. Those things now are worth a lot of money. 

They also tap into people’s memories of AIDS. I remember so many of them so there is this sense of looking back. There's some sort of time travel going on. Having seen these things on the subways, because I lived in New York, and then to now be looking at them as a sort of study, well, it makes me feel old but it also makes me feel, "Wow, I was there." I'm not sure it's nostalgia. It's a multi-layered analysis of their urgency in that moment and also of them as artifacts now. 

What do these posters represent in the history of HIV/AIDS on a global level?

They show how different countries and groups have handled public health issues. For example there are many from the Arab speaking world that advocate abstinence. While some from Europe, Germany in particular, are more stark and borderline pornographic. Some are image-based and others and are all text. Some are devastating, some are overtly political, some are super funny.

I think that [visual] humor works because it communicates to people across language barriers. Like the one with the Brazilian soccer team where they all have their hands in front of their crotches, which takes a whole new context compared to when you watch soccer. 

They also tap into people’s memories of AIDS. I remember so many of them so there is this sense of looking back. There's some sort of time travel going on. Having seen these things on the subways, because I lived in New York, and then to now be looking at them as a sort of study, well, it makes me feel old but it also makes me feel, "Wow, I was there." I'm not sure it's nostalgia. It's a multi-layered analysis of their urgency in that moment and also of them as artifacts now. 

What do these posters represent in the history of HIV/AIDS on a global level?

They show how different countries and groups have handled public health issues. For example there are many from the Arab speaking world that advocate abstinence. While some from Europe, Germany in particular, are more stark and borderline pornographic. Some are image-based and others and are all text. Some are devastating, some are overtly political, some are super funny.

I think that [visual] humor works because it communicates to people across language barriers. Like the one with the Brazilian soccer team where they all have their hands in front of their crotches, which takes a whole new context compared to when you watch soccer. 

You just look at it and laugh and also get it. That to me is a successful poster because that's what they're supposed to do. They're public service announcements. They weren't meant to be looked at originally as art or as historical artifacts. They were meant to get someone to get tested or to use a condom. 

What do you hope people take away from these images?

That art can communicate across languages in powerful ways. That posters and other types of “throw away” culture can be very valuable artifacts and teaching tools. We can learn from AIDS and apply to other health crisis. And, finally, that AIDS is still an issue.

Check out other posers from the University of Rochester collection below and head here for more information.

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    University of Rochester River Campus Libraries
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  • The posters in the University of Rochester AIDS Education Collection are presented here for research purposes only, and may b
    University of Rochester River Campus Libraries
    The posters in the University of Rochester AIDS Education Collection are presented here for research purposes only, and may be protected by copyright either according to US law or according to the laws applicable in their countries of origin. Any further reproduction of the materials may require copyright or other rights clearance and is the sole responsibility of the user.
  • University of Rochester River Campus Libraries
  • University of Rochester River Campus Libraries
  • University of Rochester River Campus Libraries
  • University of Rochester River Campus Libraries
  • University of Rochester River Campus Libraries
  • University of Rochester River Campus Libraries
  • University of Rochester River Campus Libraries
  • University of Rochester River Campus Libraries
  • University of Rochester River Campus Libraries
  • University of Rochester River Campus Libraries
  • University of Rochester River Campus Libraries
  • University of Rochester River Campus Libraries
  • University of Rochester River Campus Libraries
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