The Devastating Photo That Single-Handedly Changed The Public Opinion On The AIDS Crisis

The 1980s AIDS crisis wasn't initially met with compassion. It was swept under the rug, regarded as a gay issue that didn't affect most people. The Reagan Administration's views on AIDS were equal parts ignorant and ambivalent. It was clear they didn't understand the disease when in 1982, Press Secretary Larry Speakes actually joked with a reporter about the epidemic, alluding to the fact that anyone who knows about the issue must be gay themselves. Thousands of people thought you could contract AIDS simply from touching an infected person, and thousands more were unknowingly carrying around the virus thinking they were untouchable. The disease was harshly dubbed the "gay plague," and it took a few shocking celebrity tell-alls and one haunting photograph of an AIDS patient to change public opinion.

The early 1990s were a turning point for activists lobbying for government intervention and awareness. AIDS patient David Kirby unwittingly became the face of AIDS when the powerful image of him moments before his death was used in a 1992 ad campaign by clothing retailers Benetton. Just a year prior, famed basketball player Magic Johnson told a packed room of sports reporters he was HIV-positive. These two events greatly helped Americans realize the virus could affect whole communities and, by 1993, President Bill Clinton created the White House Office of National AIDS Policy.

But none of this may have happened if Therese Frare wasn't invited into that haunting hospital room. Here is the story of the single photograph that changed the way people viewed AIDS.


  • David Kirby's Photo Was Published By LIFE In 1990

    David Kirby's Photo Was Published By LIFE In 1990
    Photo: Therese Frare / Wikipedia / Fair Use

    In November of 1990, Life magazine published the haunting photo, which depicted David Kirby, a young man who was in a losing battle with AIDS, in the moments before his last breath. The picture was powerfully tragic – Kirby's thin limbs contorting as he stared into nothing, the faces of his family as they watched him suffer.

    The photo quickly became the face of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and was met with both adoration and immense controversy.

  • HIV And AIDS Were Widely Misunderstood And Overlooked In The 1980s

    HIV and AIDS were largely regarded as a problem solely for gay people. Because of the prejudices surrounding homosexuality, the suffering of those who were infected was widely overlooked, and at the time this photo was taken, activists were still lobbying for the government to speed up the development of new, life-saving drugs.

    It took years for the White House to create an office of National AIDS Policy, and Kirby never saw it happen in his lifetime.

  • Who Was David Kirby?

    David Kirby was a small-town boy from Ohio. In the 1980s, he became a gay activist and moved to California after falling out with his family. It was in the late '80s that Kirby learned he had contracted HIV. Though his parents were estranged, he got in touch, asking if he could come home.

    Kirby said he wanted to die with his family around him, and his parents welcomed him back with open arms. Near the end of his life, he ended up at Pater Noster House, an AIDS hospice in Columbus.

  • Photographer Therese Frare Started Volunteering At Pater Noster House

    Therese Frare's photography started as a personal project and ended with her image becoming one of the most famous photos of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Shortly after starting grad school at Ohio University, Frare began volunteering at Pater Noster House.

    While she was there, she became close friends with Peta, another volunteer, who was looking after David Kirby and some of the other patients.