David Kirby's mother Kay holds a photograph of her son - taken by Ohio-based photographer Art Smith - before AIDS-related illnesses developed. Photo: Therese Frare/ LIFE Magazine
David Kirby's mother Kay holds a photograph of her son - taken by Ohio-based photographer Art Smith - before AIDS-related illnesses developed. Photo: Therese Frare/ LIFE Magazine

H30 years ago, on May 5, 1990, activist David Lawrence Kirby died at the Pater Noster House in Columbus, Ohio. The portrait, at the moment of his death, surrounded by his family and his caretaker, Peta, was taken by photographer Therese Frare. The photo earned Therese, the following year, the main prize in world photojournalism, the World Press Photo. A little over a decade later, in 2003, the photograph was considered by LIFE Magazine “the photo that changed the face of AIDS” and was included in 2016 in the book TIME 100 photographs: the most influential images of all time, from TIME Magazine, the owner of the previous publication.

Therese Frare, at the decisive moment [and place]

In January 1990, Therese Frare was interested in portraying the issues surrounding HIV/AIDS. However, one of the barriers to be overcome was the difficulty of finding a group of people living with HIV/AIDS who were willing to be photographed. Afraid of exposure per se, but also impacted by the striking negative content of the reports published so far about the virus, people living with HIV/AIDS were afraid of being represented, even more so in images, whose role in personalizing the news can have dialectical effects.

The Pater Noster House in Columbus was an exception to the rule because its creator and director Barb Cordle believed in the importance of publicizing the institution's purpose and objectives. With that, permission to photograph was granted to Frare, who soon established a relationship with Peta, a volunteer who cared for David and other patients. David, in turn, allowed Frare to photograph him on the condition that she make no personal profit from the sale of the images. It was the relationship established with Peta that made it possible for Frare to photograph David's death.

In the same year that the photographer began her work at Pater Noster, the Ryan White CARE Act was enacted by the US Congress, a few months after the death of Ryan White, a hemophiliac teenager from Indiana who had contracted HIV at age 13 through blood transfusions. contaminated. White had been expelled from school in the 1980s for being a carrier of the virus and began, with his mother Jeanne White Ginder, a legal battle that elevated his name to a symbol of the fight against AIDS. According to the US Health Services and Resources Administration (HRSA), CARE is the largest program in the country specifically focused on providing treatment services to low-income people living with HIV who are uninsured and/or underserved.

the farewell

On May 5, 1990, Frare and Peta were together at the Pater Noster House when other volunteers came to pick him up so he could be with David in his final moments. Frare says that, at first, he stayed outside Kirby's room, only entering when David's mother asked her to photograph the family's goodbyes; “I went in and was silent in the corner, barely moving, observing and photographing the scene”. The process, in greater detail, is told by Frare in the short documentary The Face of AIDS (made by TIME for your project 100 photos), in which the photographer goes through the succession of events of that day. The mini-doc also shows the roll of film, with images from the same day, before and after, not all published.

In the May 5 records we see Peta comforting David alone before the family arrives; the hands of a nurse from the Pater Noster home placed over David's on her chest; and two records of the same scene, from different angles – one of which gained notoriety.

In another image is Kay Kirby, David's mother, holding a picture of her son smiling, dressed in a suit and tie, with a fuller face, before he developed AIDS-related illnesses. 

the notorious image

In the award-winning image, David – with an already faded expression – is in his final moments. Joined with him are Peta, her hand on her arm; her father Bill, who holds his son's head in his arms as he cries; and his sister Susan who comforts the activist's niece beside him. The father's touch questions the belief, still present at the time, that HIV could be transmitted by touch. The support of a family outside of marginalized groups gives value to the figure of David and thus helps to weaken the symbolic stigma directed towards the gay man. “By making AIDS everyone's problem and therefore a subject that everyone needs to be educated about, our understanding of the difference between 'us' and 'them' is subverted,” writes Susan Sontag in AIDS as a metaphor. The photo highlights in David the figure of the son, an action that has an impact on shortening the distance between “us” and “them”, mentioned by Sontag, even in such a hostile time with people living with HIV. 

Photo by Therese Frare helped to intensify the debate on HIV/AIDS
David Kirby – surrounded by Peta and his family – on his deathbed, Ohio, 1990. Photo: Therese Frare/LIFE Magazine

Even though it may reinforce stereotypes of representation of people in a terminal state, Frare's image “allows us to recognize the paralyzing fear while at the same time triggering an impulse to do something about it”, as Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites write.

The bond between David and Bill, frozen in Therese's image, still manages to connect with one of the most solid artistic representations in the hearts and minds of the western population: The Pietà by Michelangelo.

Colors Reunited: Benetton's Controversial Campaign

Tibor Kalman – editor-in-chief of Italian fashion house Benetton's Colors magazine – had seen David Kirby's portrait at LIFE 1990 and asked the family and photographer for permission for its use, which was granted. So, in 1992, Benetton colored the photograph, originally in black and white, in order to soften the photojournalistic character and make it closer to an advertisement. The work was completed by colorist Ann Rhoney with oil paint in less than twenty-four hours: “I wanted to capture the dignity of David. The same feeling Therese must have had, I think.”

Photo by Therese Frare helped to intensify the debate on HIV/AIDS
Photo by Therese Frare colored by Ann Rhoney and appropriated for an advertising run by Italian fashion label Benetton

The official title of the image, contrary to expectations, was not “AIDS”; the propaganda, the At first it was called “Family”. Despite this, it was personally named by Oliviero Toscani – creative director of Colors and responsible for the “United Colors of Benetton – advertising wave – from “La Pietà”, who with his explanation for this added even more fury to the question:

“Personally I call it 'La Pietà' because it is the Pietà that is real. The Pieta of Michelangelo in the Renaissance may be false, Jesus Christ may never have existed. But we know that this death took place. This is real, and the more real something is, the less people want to see it. It has always intrigued me why what is false has been accepted and reality has been rejected. AIDS is one of the biggest problems in the world today, so I think we should show something about it.”

The use of the colorized photo generated mixed reactions; individuals and groups, ranging from Catholics to AIDS activists expressed outrage: “I didn’t see a message of empowerment, I didn’t see any kind of message coming from that ad that could provide people with a way to get active, to act in their own world,” argues Marlene McCarty , a member of AIDS activism group Gran Fury, in the mini-doc The Face of AIDS. Still in the United States, another militant group, ACT Up, perhaps the main one related to the cause, made a counter-campaign to the advertisement with billboards written “There is only one pullover this photograph should be used to sell”, accompanied by a photo of a male condom.

In England, the charity Terrence Higgins Trust called for a boycott of advertising piece while The Guardian was forced to issue an editorial justifying its decision to keep the propaganda. The fashion magazines Vogue, Elle and Marie Claire, in their British edition, refused to place advertising on their pages. The most extreme case was in Germany, where the company was taken to court.

Faced with demands for a boycott of advertising and accusations of using Kirby and his family, Benetton argued that “in some countries such as Paraguay, this was the first campaign to talk about AIDS, and in many countries it was the first campaign to go beyond purely preventive measures and address issues such as solidarity with patients with AIDS. AIDS”. In favor of Benetton, there was added a statement by Therese Frare to TIME, on a statement by Bill Kirby: “Benetton did not use or exploit us. We use it. Because of them, his photo was seen around the world, and that is exactly what David would like.”

Around 2010, on the two-decade anniversary of Therese Frare's photograph, it was estimated by TIME Magazine that 1 billion people had seen the portrait.


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