Dr. Edward Atwater was sitting on a train in Boston in the early 1990s when he witnessed medical history: A government poster featuring two hands opening a condom wrapper. “I thought it was remarkable,” Atwater says. “When I went to
“It wasn’t HIV that I was interested in per se,” Atwater says about the project. “I was interested in collecting ephemera—stuff that gets thrown away, little bits of paper. When I saw that first poster, I was struck that
Atwater began collecting posters from the United States, but soon branched out into Canada, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. “It’s interesting to see how different cultures and different societies address the subject—a fatal
“Most of the posters deal with urging people to use condoms," Atwater says. "Surprisingly, even in highly Roman Catholic countries like Spain and Italy, there were plenty of posters that explicitly promote condom use.” But govern
“By the time I started collecting posters in the '90s, it was clear it wasn’t just a gay man’s disease," Atwater says. But some of the earlier works he's snapped up are targeted specifically at the gay community
“You can definitely see a change over the years as different aspects of the virus were discovered—like the idea that condom use could give you some kind of protection, or when drugs came along. These developments can be traced in the poste
“He’s always been a collector at heart,” says Atwater's wife, Ruth. To amass the collection, he called, wrote, and visited public health departments and independent sexual health organizations around the world (this
Atwater's collecting has slowed—he says he stopped actively seeking out new materials five or six years ago. (This 2005 French poster appears near the end of Atwater's collection).