Worth a thousand words: the story behind this iconic AIDS photo


Photo by Therese Frare/LIFE

For World AIDS Day, from LIFE magazine:

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.

More than two decades later, on the 25th World AIDS Day, LIFE.com shares the deeply moving story behind that picture, along with Frare’s own memories of those harrowing, transformative years.

“I started grad school at Ohio University in Athens in January 1990,” Frare told LIFE.com. “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.”

David Kirby was born and raised in a small town in Ohio. A gay activist in the 1980s, he learned in the late Eighties — while he was living in California and estranged from his family — that he had contracted HIV. He got in touch with his parents and asked if he could come home; he wanted, he said, to die with his family around him. The Kirbys welcomed their son back.

Peta, for his part, was an extraordinary (and sometimes extraordinarily difficult) character. Born Patrick Church, Peta was “half-Native American and half-White,” Frare says, “a caregiver and a client at Pater Noster, a person who rode the line between genders and one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met.”

“On the day David died, I was visiting Peta,” Frare, who today lives and works in Seattle, told LIFE. “Some of the staff came in to get Peta so he could be with David, and he took me with him. I stayed outside David’s room, minding my own business, when David’s mom came out and told me that the family wanted me to photograph people saying their final goodbyes. I went in and stood quietly in the corner, barely moving, watching and photographing the scene. Afterwards I knew, I absolutely knew, that something truly incredible had unfolded in that room, right in front of me.”

Read it all, including the story behind the controversial ad campaign that drew condemnation from the Catholic Church.


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