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Higher Education Modules

Responding to AIDS: History, Politics and Visual Culture

Class 3: Visual Culture and Public Health Posters

Visual culture includes those aspects of culture that are manifested in visual form—including photographs, popular films, television, fine art, news images, advertising images, and ground-breaking digital media. While images from these sources take different shapes and use different technologies, each participates in the production and exchange of information, values, ideas, and meanings in our society. The earliest illustrated posters, for example, have a lot in common with the high-tech Internet of today. Each is designed to catch the attention of the viewer and communicate messages quickly, most often with limited text and strong graphics. As relatively inexpensive forms of popular media, posters in the twentieth century and the Internet in the twenty-first century are also favorite ways to advocate a cause. Both provide a forum for corporate and institutional interests alongside private and community concerns, and both can be used to appeal to a broad public audience. This class introduces students to the concept of visual culture and encourages critical analysis and evaluation of posters used in educational campaigns in response to AIDS. Roger Cooter and Claudia Stein provide an introduction to the subject with their look at visual culture in the history of medicine more broadly, and Sander Gilman offers a pointed rejoinder.

Students should read the three articles listed as secondary sources before visiting the online exhibition Visual Culture and Public Health Posters. Students will then read through the entire exhibit, working with the associated discussion questions before visiting the online exhibition Surviving and Thriving: AIDS, Politics and Culture. Students should familiarize themselves with the digital galleries and discussion questions organized by the following subjects: “America Responds to AIDS,” "You can’t Get AIDS From," “Fear Mongering.” Display of posters from these galleries can be used to stimulate in-class discussions. The remaining digital galleries in the Surviving and Thriving exhibition will be incorporated in Class 4 and Class 6.

Secondary Sources:

Mitchell, W.J.T. “Showing seeing: A critique of visual culture.” Journal of Visual Culture 1 (Aug. 2002 ): 165-181.

Cooter, Roger and Claudia Stein. “Coming into focus: Posters, power, and visual culture in the history of medicine.” Medizinhistorisches Journal 42 (2007): 180-209. Accessed April 30, 2013.

Sander Gilman, “Representing Health and Illness: Thoughts for the Twenty-First Century.” Medical History 55 (July 2011 ): 295-300. Available online at:

Primary Sources:

National Library of Medicine. “Visual Culture and Public Health Posters.” Last updated July 10, 2012.

—. “America Responds to AIDS,” “Fear Mongering,” and “You Can’t Get AIDS From.” Digital Gallery themes in Surviving and Thriving: AIDS, Politics, and Culture. Last updated August 9, 2013.

Discussion Questions
  1. What is visual culture? How and why has it been considered a “dangerous supplement”? What are some of the myths about visual culture and how effectively does Mitchell address them?
  2. Why were health posters often ignored in histories of health in the past? How does Brandt use health posters in his history of venereal disease in the US? How does Sontag use posters similarly or differently? What “power” do posters have? How were images used by activists? Why did public health posters become one of the most relied upon means for the public transport of health information in the 1980s and 1990s?
  3. What role have posters played in the history of public health in the US? What techniques have they employed? How are AIDS posters similar to or different than other types of public health posters? What important themes do they address? How were they used to dispel myths about AIDS? How did they employ fear or allay fears?


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