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    Up Against the Wall: Art, Activism, and the AIDS Poster

    By Michele Karlsberg–

    Michele Karlsberg: Forty years ago, a mysterious wasting illness first linked to promiscuous sex and intravenous drug use became a global epidemic and the focus of a massive public health campaign and activist community. Now, a new publication by RIT Press documents the power and impact of nearly 200 examples of AIDS educational posters from around the world and the social activism that continues to bring awareness to a disease without vaccine or cure.

    Up Against the Wall: Art, Activism, and the AIDS Poster edited by Donald Albrecht, Jessica Lacher-Feldman, and William M. Valenti, M.D., offers nearly 200 examples of visually arresting and socially meaningful posters, taken from more than 8,000 held in the collection in the University of Rochester’s River Campus Libraries’ Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation.

    The collection, one of the largest of its kind in the world, was donated to the University of Rochester by Dr. Edward Atwater. The book accompanies an exhibition of AIDS education posters displayed at the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester from March 6–June 19, 2022.

    The posters, spanning the years from 1982 to the present, show how social, religious, civic, and public health agencies have addressed the controversial, often contested, terrain of the HIV/AIDS pandemic within the public realm. Organizations and creators tailored their messages to audiences, both broad and very specific, and used a wide array of strategies, employing humor, emotion, scare tactics, simple scientific explanations, sexual imagery, and many other methods to communicate powerfully and effectively.

    Michele Karlsberg: Why are the posters significant now? 

    Jessica Latcher-Feldman: The posters are significant in so many ways. I think that the fact that there are so many—over 8000 and growing from 130 countries and in 76 languages and dialects—show us how different communities, different organizations, governments, groups, and individuals reacted to HIV/AIDS and the need to share information effectively. The posters as individual artifacts reflect so many things: language, imagery, and how we communicate; what compassion, education, inspiration, and anger can look like; and how we find ways to express those sentiments in an urgent and effective way.

    While the messages, the audiences, and the imagery vary wildly, using them, in groups, or one by one, to dissect and digest the urgency of a global and deadly pandemic, is a honor and a privilege. Working with this collection daily can be challenging because we are still living with HIV/AIDS, and this recent history is emotionally draining at times, but the power of the posters as a lens to understand how words and images can influence and shape thoughts and behavior is one that continues to inspire. The posters remain significant and are used all the time in so many different ways. And we have made all of them freely available online, which provides a global audience for such a distinctive and global collection. 

    Michele Karlsberg: Why is it important for younger generations to understand what went on during that time?

    Jessica Latcher -Feldman: Dr. Atwater, the person who built this collection, starting with one poster in 1990, and building it to over 8000 between 1990 and his passing in 2019, saw the posters as social history, and I agree. The sheer number of posters is an indication of just how urgent it was, and is, to make people aware of their own responsibility in keeping themselves and others safe, and to share compassion, dispel myths, and offer hope. Younger generations need to understand, and I hope that the lens of COVID-19 will make a difference, that the AIDS pandemic remains something that we all must take responsibility for, in keeping ourselves and those we love, healthy. Approaching this all-too-recent history from the myriad perspectives that we can look at with regard to HIV/AIDS, we gain a great understanding of the complexity and tragedy of this devastating disease.  

    More Information About the Book and Exhibit

     Michele Karlsberg Marketing and Management specializes in publicity for the LGBTQ+ community. This year, Karlsberg celebrates 33 years of successful marketing campaigns. For more information:

    Published on February 24, 2022