The Story Behind The One Powerful Photo That Changed the Face of AIDS

In November 1990 LIFE magazine published a photograph of David Kirby — his young body wasted by AIDS, his gaze focusing 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 Therese Frare, a journalism student, quickly became the one image most powerfully identified with the HIV / AIDS epidemic that, by then, had infected millions of people (many of them unknowingly) around the world.


David Kirby was born and raised in a small Ohio town. He was a gay activist in the 1980s. It was during the late 1980s — while he was living in California, estranged from his family — that he found out that he had contracted HIV.

He reached out to his parents and asked if he could come home; he said, he wanted to die with his family around him. The Kirbys welcomed their son back.

When the photo was published by LIFE, the United States was shocked by such a graphic imagery of the disease. While the people knew that AIDS is fatal, many only thought of its effects in the abstract.

AIDS was still thought back then to be a “gay” disease and the greater public was relatively uninformed about the disease. The image also helped much of the population to connect to the family’s grief at losing their son.

This is the original caption on LIFE magazine:

“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”.


David Kirby died in April 1990, at age 32, seven months before LIFE published the photo.

By some estimates, at least a billion people have seen the now-iconic Frare photograph that appeared in LIFE, as it was reproduced in hundreds media all over the world -- newspaper, magazine and TV stories -- focusing on the photo itself and, increasingly, on the controversies that surrounded it.

Photo credit: Therese Frare / LIFE Magazine