- From the Collections
- The Researcher’s View
- Early Medicine
- Digital Developments
- In the Library
- Events and Visits
In 1999 the Wellcome Library acquired this AIDS poster in the colours of the Zimbabwean flag (red, green, yellow and black), but had no idea of the story behind its creation until this year, when we were contacted by its designer, Jane Shepherd.
Jane kindly donated two more posters in the same series, and added to her gift this letter about their origin, which she has kindly permitted us to reproduce:
“In 1990 I was diagnosed with HIV at St Stephens Hospital in Fulham, London. I went there for a sexual health check-up after having a brief affair with a Zimbabwean man whilst working in Zimbabwe. I was vaguely aware of the risk of getting HIV in Zimbabwe but I hadn’t applied that knowledge to my situation. I was worried about the test results but not very prepared to find myself one of only a few hundred women diagnosed with HIV in the UK.
I was given about eight years before the onset of AIDS and advised to live healthily. In spite of the awfulness of this prognosis I recognized it as a chance to change my life and try to do something meaningful. In the same year I returned to Zimbabwe determined to make a difference. I gave radio and film interviews and for a brief spell was open about my HIV status. I had always wanted to be a graphic designer or illustrator but did not know how to go about it. Now, I just got on with it – with a set of felt tips and Rotring pens.
I approached the newly formed AIDS Counselling Trust (ACT) in Harare and offered my skills. They commissioned me to produce four posters (although only three were printed). I can’t remember if the themes were decided by ACT or by me, but I am sure I came up with the titles, which, looking back, seems quite risky seeing that I had very little understanding of the cultural context. There was no data available on which public health messages worked or didn’t, so I was left to make these decisions myself.
I rented a room down the road and furnished it with a table and chair from the roadside vendors. I had no idea where or how to get typesetting done so I drew the type by hand, making sure everything was surrounded by a black outline as that was the only way I could envisage the screen printers separating the colours. I wanted the posters to be eye catching and colourful and move right away from the prevalence of HIV posters that lingered on death, fear, and morality. In the early 1990s, the common AIDS iconography in Southern Africa was the grim reaper, skeletons and coffins. Women were often portrayed as sex workers or of dubious morality. Sex was a taboo subject traditionally and in the Church, mentioning condoms threw everyone into a lather. As someone newly diagnosed, I didn’t want to be stigmatized, feared, or judged and nor did I want anyone else to get HIV through ignorance. Naively, I thought that information alone would protect people.
22 years later, I never ceased to be amazed that I am still alive, but am hugely disappointed that the level of stigma and discrimination has barely been dented, and that the social drivers of HIV go unaddressed.”
Jane Shepherd, 10 June 2013
The posters she donated, with their vigorous graphic style and market-style lettering, are noticeably less official in character, more colourful and accessible: and we now know the reason why.
Here by way of contrast is a more formal poster from Tanzania showing the woman selling sex to a “City Boy”, with Kiswahili lettering in a standard font:
Author: William Schupbach, with thanks to Jane Shepherd.