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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 medical school 35 years earlier, it was illegal to teach anything about contraception in Harvard Medical School.”
“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 I ought to collect it as part of medical history. But I soon appreciated that it was much more than medical history—it was social history being made.” This spoof on Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel fresco was designed for Stop AIDS Los Angeles.
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 disease transmitted through the closeted subject of sex,” he says. Take this Danish safe-sex promotion, which features a man in a wetsuit directing an anthropomorphized condom how to position a stepladder to, presumably, penetrate a faceless naked woman from behind. Another personified rubber flaps its wings in the background. The tagline: "The Impossible Task."
“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 government-funded HIV awareness posters in the United States tended to be more buttoned-up. “In the United States, there are some posters that are quite sexually explicit, but those put out by the government are sexually neutral, as they’re always concerned about offending some group here or some group there. The really good posters are put out by private groups. It’s not quite the same in Germany, Holland, England, and France, where the governments were putting out far more explicit posters than our country ever did.” This abstinence-promoting piece was used by groups in South Carolina and Washington.
“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 posters," Atwater says. He credits a 1986 Surgeon General report on AIDS as “the thing that really blew the lid off the poster business. It called a spade a spade: If you’re going to have sex, you better use a condom.” This poster from AIDS Rochester eliminated the need for words entirely.
“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 Turkish government poster from 1991 asks "What do you know about AIDS?"). For many years, Atwater traded with a European poster collector. Friends brought posters back from their vacations. When the Atwaters traveled, they made pit stops to pick up new designs. “He was very, shall we say, ambitious about getting his posters,” Ruth says. “We went some strange places to find them.” Once, they passed through Checkpoint Charlie to page through posters stacked in an East German warehouse. “German posters are very graphic,” Ruth says. “There are a lot of masochists. It was interesting.”
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). “It takes a lot of energy, and as you get older, it’s not so easy to travel around,” Atwater says. Stateside, "there isn’t much in the way of new posters now." As AIDS prevention, treatment, and awareness efforts move off the street and onto the internet, the educational artifacts of AIDS are simultaneously easier to access and more difficult to pin down.