ACT UP Demonstration, Federal Plaza, NYC, June 30, 1987. From left: Steve Gendon, Mark Aurigemma, Douglas Montgomery, Charles Stinson, Frank O’Dowd, Avram Finkelstein. Photo by Donna Binder. © Donna Binder
Best known for their iconic political poster, Silence=Death was formed by a six-person collective in New York City: Avram Finkelstein, Brian Howard, Oliver Johnston (1952–1990), Charles Kreloff, Chris Lione, and Jorge Soccarás.
Inspired by posters made by the Art Workers’ Coalition and Guerilla Girls, the group finalized the design of their first poster to protest institutional inaction as the epidemic’s devastation raged on.
Targeted to advertise and organize against cultural, scientific, and political inaction and indifference, the Silence=Death poster uses abstract rather than photographic imagery in an attempt to reach multiple audiences. The pink triangle is a reference to Nazi persecution of LGBTQ people in the 1930s and 1940s.
Original Silence=Death poster wheat-pasted on a New York City street, February 1987. Photo by Oliver Johnston. Courtesy Avram Finkelstein
Avram Finkelstein’s journal from 1986 showing Silence=Death meeting notes with a sketch of the Silence=Death poster and a follow-up riot poster, task assignments, and budgets journal
ACT-UP Demo Federal Plaza June 30, 1987. Avram Finkelstein, second from right. Behind him, Mark Fotopolous holds a homemade sign charting his time living with AIDS. Fotopolous updated his sign at each demonstration until his death in 1991. Photo by Donna Binder. © Donna Binder
ACT UP Demonstration in Federal Plaza, June 30, 1987. Photo by Donna Binder. © Donna Binder
Seize Control of the FDA at Rockville, Maryland, Campus of the Food and Drug Administration, October 11, 1988. Peter Staley, influential member of ACT UP, is pictured above a line of police officers. Photo by Donna Binder. © Donna Binder
The triangle became the central visual symbol of AIDS activism after it was adopted by the direct action advocacy group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) in 1987.
Featuring the face of then-President Ronald Reagan, the second poster produced by Silence=Death was made for the Third International Conference on AIDS. Protesters booed George Bush (then Vice President) for his support of Reagan’s controversial policies, and held an action at the White House and at the Hilton, where the AIDS conference was being held.
A Silence=Death pin
Avram Finkelstein, Frank Jump, Jerry Smith, Steve Webb, Larry Kramer, and Barry Gingell (medical director of GMHC), at the Gay Pride March, New York City, June 28, 1987
Silence=Death’s political and aesthetic efforts have inspired countless artist-activist groups to continue to fight for equity, justice, respect, and an end to the AIDS crisis. Founding member Avram Finkelstein, for example, would go on to establish Gran Fury along with ten others—a collective perhaps best known for the New Museum’s landmark 1987 exhibition Let the Record Show … installation and the Kissing Doesn’t Kill campaign (1989).
Pictured here is a neon sign of the Silence=Death motif in the window of the New Museum, then located at 583 Broadway in New York, for Let the Record Show ….
The highly graphic stickers, buttons, posters, and more produced by the fierce pussy collective advocated for lesbian visibility and AIDS-activist mobilization on the streets of New York City. Across the country, Boy With Arms Akimbo/Girl With Arms Akimbo plastered San Francisco with anti-homophobic agitprop work. Recent efforts by Flash Collective and the Tacoma Action Collective speak to the remarkable legacy of Silence=Death as well as the ongoing imperative of direct action intervention to combat AIDS.
Seize Control of the FDA at Rockville, Maryland Campus of the Food and Drug Administration October 11, 1988. Photo by Donna Binder. © Donna Binder
ACT UP travels to Atlanta during DNC, July 17–21, 1988, 1988. Figure in the foreground places a Silence=Death sticker on the riot gear of the police officer. Photo by Donna Binder. © Donna Binder
ACT UP travels to Atlanta during DNC, July 17–21, 1988, 1988. Photo by Donna Binder. © Donna Binder
Donna Binder (b. 1960) is a photojournalist and founding member of Impact Visuals, a cooperative photo agency dedicated to social documentary photography.
“In 1987, when ACT UP first formed,” Binder says, “it was … so amazing, to have pictures of, and to be able to send out images, of … people with AIDS that were strong, and were fighting, and completely turning around the victim thing.”
Lola Flash, Guilty, 1989 (detail). © Lola Flash
Lola Flash, AIDS Warriors – US Mail, 1987 (detail). © Lola Flash
Lola Flash, Blood on Its Hands, 1989 (detail). © Lola Flash
As a member of Impact Visuals, beginning in the 1980s t. l. litt (b. 1964) covered issues including AIDS activism, abortion rights, gay and lesbian rights, housing rights, and homelessness.
ACT UP targets NYC Commissioner of Health, Stephen Joseph, 1988. Photo by t.l. litt. © t.l. Litt
Seize Control of the FDA, 1988. Photo by t.l. litt. © t.l. Litt
Ray Navarro and David Robinson – 1990 Gay Pride Parade, 1990. Photo by t.l. litt. © t.l. Litt
Commemorating the poster's thirty-year anniversary in 2017, the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art installed the Silence=Death image in their SoHo windows, adding the tagline: “Be Vigilant. Refuse. Resist”. Photo by Timothy Schenck, 2017. Courtesy the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art