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November 18, 2016

Extraordinary Story Behind the Photo That Changed the Face of AIDS

In November 1990 LIFE magazine published a photograph of a young man named David Kirby — his body wasted by AIDS, his gaze locked on something beyond this world — surrounded by anguished family members as he took his last breaths. The haunting image of Kirby on his death bed, taken by a journalism student named Therese Frare, quickly became the one photograph most powerfully identified with the HIV/AIDS epidemic that, by then, had seen millions of people infected (many of them unknowingly) around the globe.

David Kirby on his deathbed, Ohio, 1990.

It was 1990. The AIDS epidemic had already wreaked havoc on millions of people’s lives across the world, ravaging families and communities. Lack of public education contributed to wide-spread hysteria about the disease. Those living with HIV/AIDS suffered violent discrimination and isolation.

The Witness

Therese Frare, a young photojournalist student, started graduate school at Ohio University that year. A gay rights activist, Therese wanted to cover AIDS for her school project, but she had difficulty finding a community of people living with the disease willing to be photographed. She began volunteering at the Pater Noster House, an AIDS hospice in Columbus and befriended Peta, a half Native American, HIV positive caregiver and client who “rode the line between genders.” Peta cared for David Kirby, a gay activist from a small Ohio town who had been estranged from his family since revealing his sexuality.

“I started grad school at Ohio University in Athens in January 1990,” Frare told LIFE. “Right away, I began volunteering at the Pater Noster House, an AIDS hospice in Columbus. In March I started taking photos there and got to know the staff — and one volunteer, in particular, named Peta — who were caring for David and the other patients.”

Therese asked David if he minded having his photo taken. He said no—as long as there was no personal profit made from his image—because he knew the power of visuals in changing people’s perceptions.

In another of Therese Frare's photos taken in the final moments of David Kirby's life, his caregiver and friend, Peta; David's father; and David's sister, Susan, say goodbye.

Bill Kirby tries to comfort his dying son, David, 1990.

A nurse at Pater Noster House in Ohio holds David Kirby's hands not long before he died, spring 1990.

David Kirby, Ohio, 1990.

David called his parents to tell them he was dying, and they had welcomed him back into the family. His parents recall being hurt by the way the health staff from the small country hospital near their home treated David—wearing gloves and gowns around him. The woman who handed out menus to patients refused to let David hold one; she would read the meal options to him from the doorway. But at Pater Noster House, David had Peta, who spoke with him, held him and relieved his pain and loneliness through simple, compassionate human contact.

David Kirby's mother, Kay, holds a photograph of her son -- taken by Ohio photographer Art Smith -- before AIDS took its toll.

On the day that David died, in April 1990 at the age of 32, Therese was visiting Peta. Peta went into David’s room to say goodbye and Therese stayed outside, trying to keep out of the way. But then David’s mother came out and asked Therese to take photos of David’s loved ones saying their final goodbyes to give them something to remember him by. Therese went into the room and stood quietly, barely perceptible, in the corner—a stranger documenting an intensely private moment. “Something truly incredible” unfolded before her eyes. David, decimated and emaciated, took his last breath and whispered “I’m ready,” slipping away with the presence of his loved ones.

Peta, a volunteer at Pater Noster House in Ohio, cares for a dying David Kirby, 1990.

A Picture is Worth...

In November 1990, LIFE magazine published Therese’s devastating photo of David’s family grieving in the hour of his death. People all across America got to see a family, a story, cataclysmic emotional pain—and an homage to profound love in the wake of a terrifying disease’s wreckage. The photo reminds us: it could be you or me.

We all know what it’s like to lose.

Two years later, United Colors of Benetton used a colored version of the photo in an ad campaign to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS, sparking a massive controversy. Outraged critics ranged from Roman Catholics, who felt the photo mocked imagery of Mary cradling Christ after his crucifixion, to AIDS activists, who saw in the ad corporate exploitation of suffering to sell t-shirts. Fashion magazines such as Elle and Vogue refused to run the ad, while high profile AIDS charities and even London’s Sunday Times called for boycotts.

As the controversy raged, Therese says she started “falling to pieces.” But the Kirbys “never had any reservations” about allowing Benetton to use the photo. Because of it, people all over the world had to confront the human cost of AIDS. In this way, David left his mark, showing that he was “once here, among us”—and one of us.

Meanwhile, another tale of compassion unfolded before Therese’s eyes. She remained close to Peta after David’s death, documenting his deteriorating health in late 1991 and 1992 as his HIV-positive status transitioned to full-blown AIDS. The Kirbys, who had watched Peta comfort David in his final days, resolved to show him the same care. They began visiting Peta as often as they could, becoming the house parents in the home where Peta spent his last months before dying in the fall of 1992.

Peta lies on a couch in a home rented by Pater Noster House, 1991. After the infamous ad ran, Benetton donated money to Pater Noster, some of which was used to furnish the house where Peta and other patients stayed.

Peta on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, July 1991. "Peta could be a handful at times," Therese Frare told LIFE, "but there was a great deal of joy in our relationship. He wasn't like anyone I'd ever met."

Kay describes Peta, as his condition worsened in late 1991 and 1992, as a “very difficult patient. He was very clear and vocal about what he wanted, and when he wanted it. But during all the time we cared for him, I can only recall once when he yelled at me. I yelled right back at him — he knew I was not going to let him get away with that sort of behavior — and we went on from there.”

Peta swims in a lake on the Pine Ridge (Lakota) Indian Reservation in South Dakota, during a trip home with photographer Therese Frare in July 1991.

Peta at the Pine Ridge (Lakota) Indian Reservation in South Dakota, during a trip home with Therese Frare in July 1991.

Peta in Ohio, 1991.

Peta in bed at Pater Noster House, 1992.

Scene at Pater Noster House, Ohio, 1991.

“Peta was an incredible person,” Frare said. “He was dealing with all sorts of dualities in his life — he was half-Native American and half-White, a caregiver and a client at Pater Noster, a person who rode the line between genders, all of that — but he was also very, very strong.”

Peta at Pater Noster House, 1992.

Peta with Bill and Kay Kirby at Pater Noster House, 1992. "I made up my mind," Kay Kirby said, "when David was dying and Peta was helping to care for him, that when Peta's time came -- and we all knew it would come -- that we would care for him. There was never any question. We were going to take care of Peta. That was that."

Kay Kirby administers medicine to Peta via an IV, 1992.

Peta and Bill Kirby share a quiet moment together in Peta's room, Ohio, 1992.

Peta in hospice, Columbus, Ohio, 1992.

Bill and Kay Kirby, 1992.

It is estimated that as many as one billion people have seen Therese’s photograph of the Kirbys over the past 20 years, as it appeared in LIFE magazine twice (1990 and 2010), the widely-circulated Benetton ad, and hundreds of newspaper, magazine and TV stories all around the world. True to her promise to David, Therese never made a cent from the photo, donating all proceeds back to AIDS research.

(All photos courtesy of Therese Frare, the photographer, and the Kirby family; via Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes)


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