"Why fight wars, not AIDS?"
— a child quoted at the Organisation of African Unity conference in 1998.
HIV/AIDS is a very moving subject, one that has come to signify the sanctity of human life. It is a phenomenon that requires unprecedented political will, social mobilization, sufficient courage and, often, anger to act.
For visual commentators and practitioners, the AIDS pandemic with its world wide wrath presents a rare opportunity to observe a global response to a singular affliction confronting humanity.
Graphic designers' response to AIDS has opened up a smorgasbord of possible communication approaches. It is a response to a multi-dimensional situation. The complexity of the situation is compounded by the evolution of the disease, the social, cultural, political, religious and economic variations that abound and then filtered by the differing aims, messages, strategies and agendas of the powers that be and the medical experts.
The challenge is clear: How do designers and artists respond effectively to raise awareness and help combat this far reaching threat, given the complexity of our differing geography, beliefs, economic status, access to political power, and degree of education? This is the task, exacerbated by a subject embedded in the sensitive realm of sexual behavior and burdened by cultural, generational and traditional overtones.
As we are guided along a path of posters, Graphic Intervention takes us on a macro-view journey of those challenges and the visual and conceptual responses to AIDS while permitting us a micro-view of worlds within worlds and how we understand images and notions from mere reaction to activism.
The posters address a wide range of themes, including HIV/AIDS transmission and how to prevent it; care and access to treatment; the stigma related to the people it infects; sexual norms and discrimination: racial and gender politics; hope and compassion. The rendition of the posters covers a wide arc of artistic styles and languages. From the broad and general to the esoteric. From the concrete to the abstract, from the placid to the dark, emotions run the gamut from love to fear.
Many people in the West have never had an opportunity to see social graphics on a large scale as public spaces are sold to the highest bidder. Here we get to witness the immense power of the various messages and come to understand how much of a service these are in the remote regions of the world with little or no access to this vital information.
Condoms and Compassion
The most common theme in the exhibition is prevention and the major device for prevention of transmission depicted is the condom. While its use and its acceptance are taken for granted in many western societies, its display requires explicit illustrations of male sexuality that have usually been taboo. The seriousness of the AIDS pandemic has reversed the taboo: the nude body and sexual acts have never had such public exposure since the Renaissance. This has resulted in the creation of explicit materials even in countries where they are totally unacceptable. Erotic metaphors abound and many do nothing more than titillate at best, and at worst encourage dangerous behavior. Much of this confrontational work can perpetuate the unfortunate idea of nudity and sexuality as perversity, often feeding reactionary conservatism and hindering its own cause. It is of course important to promote correct use of the condom. Condoms are weapons in a serious anti-AIDS campaign, but seem to be too easily subjected to word play and visual antics.
The Ultimate Icon
The overlapping red ribbon that we have come to know and love was created in 1990 by Frank Moore, a New York based painter who sadly died in 2002 from complications of AIDS. He was one of the founding members of Visual AIDS. Celebrities who helped it to become recognizable worldwide as a symbol of AIDS awareness and hope endorsed the Red Ribbon. Other fund-raising groups subsequently copied the motif as it morphed into a variety of colors across the world.
While its significance is important, it is simply an icon, it does not convey information, just as Milton Glaser's 'I love NY' doesn't tell us anything about New York. Why do we raise the red flag over a ribbon? Well, like the condom, it appears in many instances to be the first go-to symbol on the subject. If only hastily appropriated arbitrarily with no significance or merely for decoration, such an icon serves little purpose beyond solidarity.
Good design is never accidental. It lies at the intersection where intelligence and art meet. Posters by their nature and mobility are a canvas created for a bold visual language. That language constitutes the essence of their mandate. Successful posters are those that grab our attention enough for us to interact with the message they impart, so that we leave a bit more informed and educated by their message, and amused—perhaps even exhilarated—by their aesthetic. The best posters will move us so deeply that we change our beliefs and behaviors, building on a powerful wave of emotional response.
The main objective of posters in this sphere is to influence attitudes, to sell a product or service, or to change behavior patterns. The purpose of public health posters is clearly to alter the consciousness of the public as well as to bring about improvements in health practices.
Some posters target specific groups of individuals and their effectiveness is more apparent as it is easier for the designer to identify and incorporate the particular concerns of those audiences. Using visual nuances derived from the culturally rich local environments offers more effective designs and better communication. These target audiences are diverse indeed: the male gay community, heterosexual families, pubescent teens, health workers, truck drivers and prostitutes. Posters also dispense other messages: abstain from having sex, arm yourself with information, and show compassion for the infected.
Global / Local
In understanding AIDS many designers who really want to communicate at a local level need to understand not only the medical, social and political implications of the disease but the efforts to contain and control it as well as its history.
Many of these posters illustrate how ideas that originate from Western countries—in debates among religious groups, foreign governments, and international aid organizations—have a direct impact on people in developing countries and on the AIDS crisis there.
Certain Western posters get caught up in the conundrum of the witty tagline (phrase or headline) adapted and reinterpreted from years saturated with that type of consumerist advertising. However, in some cases, a short punchy tagline works better than the overly wordy approaches favored by some developing countries, which defeats the purpose of what a poster does best. In developed countries posters can afford the luxury of a streamlined graphic that carries the mark of commercial advertising. The information has been conveyed via education, PSAs and all the poster does is reinforce and remind the viewer that AIDS is a reality.
A number of posters from developing countries highlight the challenges faced by their distinct communities. Through simple campaigns such as the 'ABC' approach pioneered in Uganda—Abstain, Be faithful, use Condoms—they communicate that AIDS is neither unavoidable nor invincible.
National Library of Medicine:
Regardless of their differences, these (types of AIDS) 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.
While many posters still exhibit regional styles and serve those needs, the effect of globalization is apparent. There is evidence of the erosion of cultural characteristics as too many designers draw from the same well. Technological progress in image production homogenizes more of what we are seeing these days, unfortunately with no regard for where they originate.
Interventions / Impact
In an ideal world we would be informed of the results of each poster—each graphic intervention. Did the fear provoked by dramatic visuals engender prudent behavior? Did compassionate messages lead to inclusion and better care? Did evocations of love bring viewers to behave more lovingly, protecting themselves and others? The ultimate assessment would show reductions in transmission of the virus and improvements in the lives of people living with HIV.
Here and Now
The deadliest part of the virus is apathy. Countless other issues are at play here, blinkering and blinding us. From governments denying access to health care for their citizens to pharmaceutical companies ready to make a 'killing' off HIV/AIDS; from the control of generics to the distribution of counterfeit drugs; the blessings and curses of religion and tradition, myth and taboo, the blur benefits some as it hurts many. Opposing force fields keep the world just as confused as it is crazy.
Millions of people, a relentless timeline, no definitions, a situation in flux portending human catastrophe: it is easy to look away. We must embrace this with humanity and respond from the belief that at every level this pandemic can be stopped. This is the paradigm as long as people act realistically.
For everyone, this brave new world means thinking faster than the epidemic. For designers this evolution requires a quintessential shift from the way that visual language is merely appropriated in this arena, to exploring and implementing new narratives, creative resources and media that challenge our existing sources of values. Values that we have been complicit in creating in our messages, perpetuating the stigma that prevent progress, and if left to flourish threaten to confront our being.
Here, graphic design by its very nature—call it creativity, call it problem solving if you must—can be most effective if it aligns itself with the strategy we can only express as care. Facing this global tidal wave is a moral imperative, requiring long-term thinking and foresight through social mobilization, which engages graphic designers in a multi-dimensional, multi-cultural, multi-disciplinary and multi-pronged campaign.
We have to think integration and not disintegration, inclusion and not exclusion, and through the continuity of care for our shared humanity we can aim for the authorship for a better tomorrow. The quality of future life depends on the quality of life now. Now is the time to show that design and humanity are in dialogue by broadening our strong action and empathetic influence in the world.
This continuum of care paradigm insists that while addressing prevention and treatment, we urgently need to look beyond and respond to the impact of vulnerability, social production and security. Graphic Intervention demonstrates in more ways than we can imagine that posters can lead the visual charge to consider, understand and act on this topic and emote us to weave a global safety net for us all.