The photograph that helped to de-stigmatise HIV and AIDS in the midst of crisis

HIV and AIDS activist David Kirby was pictured on his deathbed in an image that shook society.

Photograph of David Kirby and family by Therese Frare
Image: Therese Frare

The photograph, taken by journalism student Therese Frare in 1990, shows David Kirby, a North American HIV and AIDS activist, on his deathbed surrounded by close family.

It was soon after published by the renowned LIFE magazine under the caption:

“After a three-year struggle against AIDS and its social stigmas, David Kirby could fight no longer. As his father, sister and niece stood by in anguish, the 32-year-old founder and leader of the Stafford, Ohio, AIDS Foundation felt his life slipping away. David whispered: “I’m ready”, took a last labored breath, then succumbed.”

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David Kirby’s mother holds a picture of him from about ten years before his death (Therese Frare)

The publication of the photo became a defining moment in the struggle against the prevailing stigma associated with HIV and AIDS, which was often cast as the “gay disease”. This exacerbated the trauma for victims by pushing them out of mainstream discourse.

Frare has recalled:

“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. Afterward I knew, I absolutely knew, that something truly incredible had unfolded in that room, right in front of me.

“Early on, I asked David if he minded me taking pictures, and he said, ‘That’s fine, as long as it’s not for personal profit’. To this day I don’t take any money for the picture. But David was an activist, and he wanted to get the word out there about how devastating AIDS was to families and communities. Honestly, I think he was a lot more in tune with how important these photos might become.”

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Marchers on the New York City Gay Pride march in 1983, as the AIDS epidemic hit frightening levels. (Getty Images)

AIDS was initially named Gay Related Immune Deficiency (GRID), and during the height of the crisis, the illness was still thought of in the abstract by the general population and attributed to ‘less desirable’ sections of society.

Frare’s photograph humanised the victims of the epidemic and placed the profound suffering endured at the hands of the virus on a public platform, helping to combat discrimination, and becoming known as “the picture that changed the face of AIDS”.

© 2019 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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