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Visual Culture and Health Posters


[Visual Culture and Health Posters HIV/AIDS collage]. 19 November 2003.
"When we view these posters, we are educated in the potential for action--which is what advertising does best, but little else. The chimerical world of picturing beauty and health at the close of the twentieth century provides as little access to the complex images demanded of our society as do the images of the last fin de siécle, but in their overwhelming simplicity they form the materials for a new history of medicine rooted in the study of the visual image."
--Sander Gilman, Picturing Health and Illness: Images of Identity and Difference


This section of the exhibit on HIV/AIDS examines how grassroots activists, voluntary organizations, and the public health bureaucracy confronted one of the greatest public health catastrophes of the twentieth century. The exhibit section explores how educators dealt with myths about transmission, targeted certain segments of the population, overcame sexual taboos, and addressed the subjects of stigmatization and human rights.

General awareness of HIV/AIDS in the United States is often traced to a report by the Centers for Disease Control on a series of unusual occurrences of a rare form of cancer and a rare form of pneumonia amongst homosexual men in June 1981. By this time, the disease had spread to at least five continents without anyone knowing about or identifying the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that caused it. Before the virus was isolated and identified in 1983, a number of theories circulated about the possible cause of the opportunistic infections associated with Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). The puzzling initial cases created a feeling of impotence against the disease, and fear of its spread encouraged oversimplifications in media outlets that tended to identify the epidemic exclusively with homosexual white men and intravenous drug users. Throughout much of the 1980s, medical and public health professions fumbled to understand this increasingly devastating epidemic and develop therapeutic and social approaches to halting its progress. As HIV/AIDS claimed a growing number of lives and the Reagan administration sponsored research but otherwise remained silent on the disease, Americans worried about the possibility of contagion through casual contact, and politicians called for the mandatory testing of the entire population and the quarantine of AIDS patients. The Surgeon General wasn't even authorized to issue a report on AIDS until 1986.

By the early 1990s HIV/AIDS had become a hotly contested political issue and had given rise to the patient activist movement that sought to counter scapegoating of HIV carriers. The epidemic ultimately defied the widespread confidence in medicine's ability to fight disease, challenged views of sexuality in American society, encouraged a reconciliation between scientific inquiry and compassionate care for the ill, and demanded a new approach to disease prevention and education from public health educators

HIV/AIDS Transmission

When HIV and AIDS first emerged in the United States more than twenty years ago, conflicting reports and theories about transmission fostered an epidemic of fear and prejudice. Early press coverage, for example, frequently associated HIV/AIDS exclusively with homosexuals and intravenous drug users, despite the fact that as early as 1982 AIDS-related diseases began turning up in children and transfusion recipients. Since very little was known about transmission, public anxiety continued to grow. Government and non-government organizations responded by coordinating educational and informational campaigns using a variety of media and messages. In an increasingly visual modern culture, public health advertisements combined images and text to present an integrated message about a catastrophe that would affect us all. Posters, billboards, and print ads raised awareness, encouraged prevention strategies, and helped convince people that they should be personally concerned with the burgeoning epidemic. While many early posters targeted the fear surrounding AIDS by offering simple facts about transmission, others challenged predominant notions about at-risk populations.

Target Populations

Different aims, messages, and strategies have strongly influenced the content and design of AIDS posters that address specific target groups. Many early AIDS prevention messages, for example, were aimed heavily at the white gay male community and intravenous drug users of all colors. While some created an atmosphere for open discussion or invite more participation from observers, others attempted to condemn or inspire fear. Because people understand pictures in different ways (depending on environment, experience, education, and beliefs) and sexual behavior is deeply rooted in culture and tradition, messages to raise awareness and encourage preventive behavior varied depending on the intended audience. Regardless of their differences, these posters are meaningful to viewers because they frequently draw on images from popular culture and express the living habits of people. As such, the messages in these posters reveal how public health educators and activists see themselves and their audiences, and how they conceptualize disease and define normal behavior

Safe Sex and Condoms

Safer sex through the use of condoms became a hallmark of print advertisements, billboards, and posters beginning in the late 1980s. The images in this section symbolize an important advance beyond the simple messages about how HIV is transmitted, or who is at risk, by explaining how to prevent infection. Complementing public service announcements developed for television networks, which stressed the role of condoms in preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS, print media provided a crucial educational forum. By offering candid information, addressing specific populations, and using a variety of sophisticated marketing techniques borrowed from commercial advertising, print images effectively promoted safe sex and condom use at a time when a longstanding taboo against paid condom advertising on television continued to limit ads to late-night time slots. Today, only three of the six broadcast networks--NBC, CBS, and FOX--officially allow network-level condom advertising. Meanwhile, print images continue to offer an alternative media for promoting condom use and its benefits.

Living with HIV/AIDS

Stigma and discrimination associated with HIV and AIDS are among the greatest barriers to preventing further infections, providing adequate care, and alleviating suffering. The stigma surrounding sex, sexuality, and intravenous drug use has prevented millions from receiving information about HIV, how it is transmitted, and how to protect themselves. Discrimination has also prevented people with HIV from being open about their status and getting access to treatment. People with, or suspected of having, HIV have been turned away from health care services, denied housing or employment, shunned by friends and colleagues, divorced from their spouses, and even murdered. Avoiding stigma and challenging norms has partly depended on overcoming the widespread judgment that certain people living with HIV/AIDS are innocent victims, such as child hemophiliacs or heterosexual spouses, while others are "getting what they deserve" because they are either promiscuous, drug users, or otherwise immoral. As the posters in this section reveal, the effort to address and overcome this distinction has remained a priority in educational campaigns. In the process, popular opinion has moved towards the position that everyone living with HIV/AIDS is an innocent victim.

Solidarity and Human Rights

Stigma, discrimination, and human rights violations are interrelated. They create, reinforce, and legitimize each other. But while stigma and discrimination have led to the violation of the human rights of people living with HIV/AIDS, of their families, and even those presumed to be infected, the pursuit of freedom from such discrimination has also inspired solidarity at the grassroots and international level. Public information campaigns have helped people to understand the unfairness and unjustness experienced by people living with HIV/AIDS. These campaigns can also change individual and social attitudes by moving beyond the documentation of the issue to creating positive role models and encouraging positive action.