A graphic battle

British Deaf Association, 'The best lovers are good with their hands'. Wellcome Library/Wellcome Images

British Deaf Association, 'The best lovers are good with their hands'. Wellcome Library/Wellcome Images

Today is World AIDS Day. First held in 1988 to raise awareness of HIV and the AIDS pandemic, December 1 has since been the day on which we remember those who the virus has taken from us and spread awareness of efforts to fight the illness (a fight that continues: see Tackling the spread of HIV in South Africa on the Wellcome Trust blog)

Earlier this year, we published on the Wellcome Collection website a selection of AIDS posters, based on the Wellcome Library’s collection of AIDS posters, the fourth largest in the world. The posters contain many of the highly recognisable visual symbols that we have come to associate with the battle against AIDS: the red ribbon, the AIDS Quilt, and the imagery of HIV-positive artist Keith Haring, as well as reminders that the fight against AIDS has also often involved controversy.

Today, when thousands follow the activities of World Aids Day on Twitter, and the internet is our primary source of information about sexual health, it seems strange to imagine a time when the primary method of communication about AIDS might be printed material. But, as William Schupbach reminds us in his introduction to the selection, “paper posters continued because of their greater presence, durability and immediacy in the real world of the street, the nightclub and the support group”. And so, even today, we might still do well to look to posters, leaflets and other printed material to communicate a potentially life-saving message.

If you’re interested in researching AIDS posters further, the Wellcome Collection and Library are not the only places you can find AIDS posters online. AVERT’s collection of historical AIDS posters goes back to 1984, including posters passing on the vital message of how HIV couldn’t be contracted. UCLA’s Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library has a searchable online database of posters (don’t let the fearsome library interface put you off finding some gems in here, with very generous resolution images).

The website for the current Graphic Intervention exhibition at Massachusetts College of Art and Design also offers a gallery of well-annotated, diverse and striking images. And in printed form you can find Visual Strategies Against AIDS, based on the exhibition and collection of posters at the Museum of Design in Zurich.

It’s worth sparing a few moments on World AIDS Day to think not only about the medical battle against the pandemic, but also about the extraordinary creative efforts that have gone into representing the struggle against the virus, and to reflect on the extraordinary power of these images.

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