Up Against the Wall
Author & Curator Jessica Lacher-Feldman Discusses a New Book that Showcases the University of Rochester’s AIDS Education Posters Collection
by Chael Needle

Up Against the Wall book cover. RIT Press

Some of the posters in Up Against the Wall: Art, Activism, and the AIDS Poster, a new hardcover book from RIT Press, I recognized immediately. When I turned a page and saw one particular poster, I instantly remembered it: a bright-colored, stick-figure drawing of a frowning child surrounded by flowers beneath the words “I Have AIDS. Please Hug Me” (1987, Tiburon, California, U.S.A.; creator: Center for Attitudinal Healing; designer: Jack Keeler). Most of the posters I had never seen, like one showing a black-and-white rendering of a needle with the text “Just Say Know” and encouragement to participate in needle exchange as a form of prevention (1990, San Francisco, California, U.S.A. creator: Girl with Arms Akimbo, for Prevention Point).

Edited by Donald Albrecht, Jessica Lacher-Feldman, and William M. Valenti, MD, Up Against the Wall showcases nearly 200 posters from the AIDS Education Posters Collection, housed at the University of Rochester’s River Campus Libraries Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation.

“Can You Get AIDS from a Drinking Fountain?” 1988, Toronto, Ontario, Canada Created by Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. Credit: From Up Against the Wall, RIT Press

Reading Up Against the Wall invites you to understand how the creators of AIDS education posters have tried to reach different audiences, taking into consideration geographic region, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, mode of transmission, and other aspects in an effort to convey ideas about HIV prevention, AIDS stigma, and addressing the needs of people living with HIV/AIDS. Some of the posters favor the technical; some bank on the personal and expressive. Some are text-heavy; some rely only on images and icons. Some are directly activist-oriented; some are more circuitous about how they would like viewers to translate knowledge into action.

Starting in 1990 and continuing until his death, Dr. Edward C. Atwater (1926–2019), a physician and medical historian, amassed more than 8,000 posters and related ephemera from four decades and representing 130 countries and over 76 languages and dialects. Atwater donated the collection to the University of Rochester, where he went as an undergraduate and where he was employed later as a doctor and professor. He stipulated that the posters be accessible. To honor his wishes, the entire collection has been digitized and is available here: https://aep.lib.rochester.edu/.

Writes Lacher-Feldman in her chapter essay about Atwater and the collection: “It was Dr. Atwater’s personal triumph to document through these posters how messages about HIV/AIDS have been disseminated to different audiences and populations around the world from the very beginnings of the pandemic through today. Dr. Atwater was fascinated by how sensitive topics such as intimacy, sexually transmitted disease, contraception, homosexuality, sex work, pre-marital sex, and aggressive political and social protest were conveyed in these posters. They all speak to much more than the AIDS crisis, they speak to dramatic shifts in our cultural and social history at the end of the twentieth century.” Lacher-Feldman and others will continue to expand the collection with new acquisitions in years to come.

Alongside insights from the editors, the book also features critical analyses by Avram Finkelstein [A&U, June 2019], Jennifer Brier and Matthew Wizinsky , as well as Mats Christiansen, Esther McGowan, MC Roodt , Theodore (Ted) Kerr, Dr. Joseph N. Lambert, Kyle Croft, Alexander McClelland, Siân Cook, Joshua Valentine Pavan, Dr. Stephen Dewhurst, Tamar W. Carroll, Ian Bradley-Perrin, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, and Jordan Arseneault.

The book also serves as the catalogue for an upcoming exhibition of posters from the collection at the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, March 6–June 19, 2022.

A&U recently had the opportunity to correspond with Jessica Lacher-Feldman, Exhibitions and Special Projects Manager, River Campus Libraries, University of Rochester and the curator of record for the AIDS Education Posters Collection.

“Prevent AIDS. Use One,” ca. 1991, Boston, Mass. Created by Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Credit: From Up Against the Wall, RIT Press

Chael Needle: In Up Against the Wall, you write: “As curator of record for this collection, I have the opportunity to engage with classes, students, members of the press, and scholars. With each and every interaction I gain additional insights into how the messages and images can be group and arranged.” Could you share one or two of those interaction-prompting insights?
Jessica Lacher-Feldman: There are so many stories I could tell. One of the ones that stays with me was with a class in the summer of 2019, pre-pandemic, where I worked with a group of about forty students who were coming from Sub-Saharan African countries to study in the United States, some at the University of Rochester, and some elsewhere. What we did for the class was to showcase the AIDS crisis in the U.S. through the geographic lens of New York City and San Francisco to a group of young people who have lived with the HIV/AIDS crisis in a completely different way than we have in America. And as eighteen year olds, they have never known anything else. It was eye-opening to them to see the AIDS pandemic, and the posters as tools for communicating behavior changes, warnings, and empathy in ways that they had never seen. The overt sexuality, the openness of language, and other elements were so illuminating to them. The other piece which I found so remarkable is that these young students had been taught that HIV/AIDS no longer existed in the United States, and that it was still a huge issue, especially among marginalized and underrepresented people, a stunning revelation. I worked with a class yesterday, focusing on language and advertising, and the kinds of discussions that are fostered through analyzing the messages in the posters feels like such important conversation both on an intellectual and an emotional level. Many of the students are first year undergraduates, born in 2002 or 2003, but with no real sense of the very recent history around HIV/AIDS and the confluence of art, activism, education, and empathy that made the creation of these posters so important in communities all over the world. The conversation moved from the posters and the messages, to their own differing experiences about how they learned (or didn’t learn) about HIV/AIDS in sex education in school. Each encounter gives me hope—these posters, as a corpus of material, and individually, foster thought and action, and that feels really meaningful to me.

What did you come to learn about the collection in the process of editing the book?
With a collection so vast and so complex, I have learned every day as I work with the collection. With the book project, which came to completion and went to press during the pandemic, I think I learned a great deal about how we are able to work and connect with others despite distances and barriers. For my part in writing—in the chapter about the collection itself, I spent a great deal of time reflecting on the collector of the posters, Dr. Edward Atwater, and the significance of the work that he took on to build such an enormous and rich group of posters. With over 8,000 posters in the collection, it’s inevitable that I notice posters I have never seen before in that 8,000. I also have gotten to know the posters that are included in the book very well. And I think one of the great things we all come to realize with a project like this, one that is about collaboration and exploration of a topic, that we find ourselves making thousands of tiny decisions as we move forward. My exciting assertion that we have hot pink endpapers was one decision that stands out—it’s a small thing, and it wasn’t controversial, but I find it deeply satisfying to open the book and see those bright pink endsheets, reminding me of the labor and thought that goes into a work like this.

From the Banana Boys series, 1983, Rochester, N.Y. Created by AIDS Rochester. Credit: From Up Against the Wall, RIT Press

I love the 1983 Banana Boys poster from AIDS Rochester/Trillium Health for its simplicity and the way it normalizes safer sex. Which poster or posters always catch your eye in the collection and why?
The 1983 Banana Boys poster from AIDS Rochester/Trillium Health is amazing—simplicity, and a strong nod to Andy Warhol, which is never a bad thing. For me there are so many posters that stand out—the four I wrote about in the book, the French mock propaganda posters that “say no to the new Ghetto” are so powerful to me (https://bit.ly/3rankzd).

There are so many posters that stop me in my tracks; I find it very interesting to show posters from other parts of the world that really bring out some interesting conversations about audience—and hammer home the fact the AIDS crisis has an impact on us all. For example, one poster from Ghana that is clearly geared towards a military audience: (https://aep.lib.rochester.edu/node/41378). Or another poster (https://aep.lib.rochester.edu/node/43302) which is aimed at business travelers (and an uncomfortable and not-so-subtle nod to sex tourism).

Another poster that I am drawn to is one that I helped acquire not long before Dr. Atwater passed away was this 1983 Ringling Brothers fundraiser for Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York City (https://aep.lib.rochester.edu/node/49240). It speaks to me for many reasons. This early poster combines the exuberance of a circus poster with the urgency of raising much-needed funds at the very dawn of the AIDS crisis. I find that juxtaposition powerful, and I am drawn to thinking about the people who did so much in so many different ways for so many.

There are several posters from Eastern Europe, Israel, China, and other parts of the world that are very clever, veiled, and complex, and I like to think about these and how they reflect their respective cultures as it relates to HIV/AIDS (for example, https://aep.lib.rochester.edu/node/47550).

“Only Gay Men Get AIDS. Only Gay Men and Haitians Get AIDS. […] When Are You Going to Get It?” n.d., Atlanta, Georgia. Created by AIDS Atlanta
Credit: From Up Against the Wall, RIT Press
What are your hopes for the book and the upcoming exhibit next year?
My hopes for the book and the upcoming exhibition—well, I am hopeful that those who are coming of age now and have no real understanding of the HIV/AIDS crisis will come away from the exhibition and book with a deeper understanding of the connection between these posters and the critical need for educating, informing, sharing information, and making voices heard around HIV/AIDS. I feel that, with the additional lens of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have a chance to even further build a deeper understanding of shared responsibility for the health and well-being of our fellow human beings, and for ourselves.

I also hope that the exhibition and the book will inspire others to think about leveraging their own creativity to make a difference in this world. One small part of this exhibition is a state-wide (New York State) poster contest. And we have the entire collection, all 8,000 plus posters available online—I hope that the exhibition and the book bring more attention to the power of the medium of the HIV/AIDS education poster as a tool for expression, education, comfort, and action.

Visit the collection online at: https://aep.lib.rochester.edu/.

Chael Needle interviewed photographer Phyllis Christopher for the November 2021 issue. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.