In 2008, twenty-seven years into the global HIV/AIDS pandemic, an estimated 25 million people had died from the disease, and approximately 33.4 million people were living with HIV/AIDS [1]. Although current antiretroviral treatment can greatly slow the progression of disease symptoms, it is not a cure, and the treatments are too costly for the vast majority of the world to maintain for a lifetime.

Scientific progress has been rapid, but communicating what is known about prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and living as an HIV-positive person in order to change societal behaviors has lagged behind: “For every two people who start treatment, five become newly infected” [1]. Tamping down and reversing this epidemic will require public health education on a global scale.

In the beginning of the epidemic, posters were the go-to option. Posters are cheap to mass-produce, and reach a larger segment of society than, say, a television ad, particularly in areas where televisions are rare or non-existent. Posters can be visually arresting, and can often be wordless – useful if the target population has a high rate of illiteracy or a fractured attention span.

A selection of posters from 44 countries are on display in Graphic Intervention: 25 Years of International AIDS Awareness Posters, an exhibition curated and organized by Elizabeth Resnick and Javier Cortés for the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt) in Boston, Massachusetts. The posters, dating from 1985 to 2010, cover practical topics including modes of transmission, prevention of infection, and treatment options. Additionally, many of the posters urge compassion for the infected and attack the stigma that was virulently associated with HIV/AIDS early in the epidemic, all while covering topics that are often taboo – namely, sexual behavior and intravenous drug use.

Three of these posters have been reproduced here with permission. The first poster, from the artist Mi’ray Faris of Iraq, is titled “Suspicious Sex. Uneasy Conscience. Forbidden Behavior. Deadly Diseases.” The message focuses on prevention of infection by abstinence or monogamy. Modulating sexual behavior is a common theme in the exhibition; what is not common, however, is how posters from different countries and interest groups address it. Some urge abstinence, while others promote the use of condoms; some are explicit, and others shroud the topic to best match the sexual mores of the society that the posters are targeted to.

The second poster, “I am not my disease”, shows a red ribbon, now a universal symbol of HIV/AIDS, swaddling a man’s torso. The designer, Chaz Maviyane-Davies of Zimbabwe, describes the ribbon as being “fused to the body, as a branding scar… or ‘scarlet letter’ defining the person as the disease.” It urges compassion for HIV-positive individuals, and urges those individuals to see themselves as complete people, and not just a disease.

The third poster, also by Chaz Maviyane-Davies, was designed for World AIDS Day 2007. The caption, “Everyday: 6,800 new infections, 5,700 deaths”, underscores the massive scale of the HIV/AIDS epidemic – the Goliath to the world’s David. This poster captures the motivation of using graphic design and the arts as a way of communicating science to the public: by informing people, thereby arming them with the red ribbon-drawn slingshot, the posters attempt to change personal and societal attitudes and behaviors for the purpose of global health.

Graphic Intervention: 25 Years of International AIDS Awareness Posters will be on exhibit at MassArt until Dec. 4th, 2010.

– Leila Ross is at Harvard Medical School


[1] Report on the global AIDS epidemic 2008. Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).