David Kirby’s Last Days

In November 1990, LIFE Magazine published a photo of a man, suffering from AIDS, taking his last breaths. The photo ran across two pages, featured in the “Moments in Life” section.*

© Therese Frare"David Kirby on his deathbed, Ohio, 1990."

© Therese Frare

In the bottom left corner of the photo read the caption:

“THE END After a three-year struggle against AIDS and its social stigmas, David Kirby could fight no loner. 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, only 32 years old, seven months before the photo was published. Kirby was a gay activist in the 1980s and near the end of the decade, he learned he had HIV. He was separated from his family, but contacted his parents and asked to come home and to be surrounded by family wen he died. (LIFE)

Kirby died in Pater Noster House, an AIDS hospice center in Columbus, Ohio. Therese Frare, the photographer, began volunteering at Pater Noster House while attending graduate school at Ohio University in Athens (LIFE). Frare worked for newspapers for 12 years before graduate school and became interested in covering AIDS before arriving at Pater Noster House (LIFE). In March 1990, Frare started taking photos and got to know the staff. She focused particularly on Peta, a volunteer at the hospice center, who took care of David Kirby (LIFE).

“Of course, it was difficult to find a community of people with HIV and AIDS willing to be photographed back then, but when I was given the okay to take pictures at Pater Noster I knew I was doing something that was important — important to me, at least,” (LIFE).

In the “Behind the Picture” for LIFE.com, Frare describes how she came to take the photo of David dying with his family: While visiting with Peta, the staff called on him to be with Kirby. Peta brought Frare with him. At first, Frare stayed outside the room. However, David’s mother Kay came out of the room, where David was dying, and told Frare that the family wanted her to photograph people saying their final goodbyes to David.

“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” (LIFE).

Frare previously asked David Kirby if he minded that she take photos of him; he told her he didn’t mind as long as it was not for personal gain. She says she still does not take any money for the photo of Kirby. About his acceptance of Frare taking photos, Frare explains to LIFE that Kirby was an activist and wanted to show how devastating AIDS was. “Honestly, I think he was a lot more in tune with how important these photos might become,” she said to LIFE. At the time, Frare did not think anyone would really see the photographs.

But, according to LIFE, as many as one billion people have seen the photo; it was reproduced in hundreds of newspapers, magazines and television stories, mostly focusing on the photo and the later controversy surrounding it after United Colors of Benetton used it for an advertisement.

LIFE.com describes the photo as “the photo that changed the face of AIDS,” which suggests it had a major impact and perhaps changed how people saw AIDS. However, research shows little evidence for how the photo changed things. The photo is undeniably moving and it surely impacted some people. It is most memorable and it is likely one of the most associated photos of the U.S. AIDS epidemic. But like many powerful photos, such as Eddie Adams’ image from the Vietnam war of a U.S. ally general shooting a Veit Cong Guerrilla in the head, the photo of David Kirby and his family may not be a direct cause of any change.

LIFE’s “Behind the Picture” included a quote from Barb Cordle, volunteer director at Pater Hoster House while Kirby was there: Cordle said Frare’s photo of David Kirby and his family “has done more to soften people’s hearts on the AIDS issue than any other I have ever seen. You can’t look at that picture and hate a person with AIDS. You just can’t” (LIFE).

The photo, however, overshadowed Frare’s other work from Pater Noster House, particularly her continued work with Peta. Frare followed Peta with a camera for two years, including his days suffering from AIDS (LIFE).

“In the end, the picture of David became the one image that was seen around the world, but there was so much more that I had tried to document with Peta, and the Kirbys and the other people at Pater Noster. And all of that sort of got lost, and forgotten”(LIFE).

Frare continued her photojournalism work and is still working today. Frare worked as a photojournalist for many newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, as well as a photographer for the Communications and Marketing Department at the University of Massachusetts.

Frare currently lives and works in Seattle, Wash. with Greg Davis at Frare Davis Photography.

Frare and Davis work with corporate clients and are both contributing stock photographers for Getty Images. Davis is also Director of Photography at KCTS9, Seattle’s public TV station.

Here are more photos from Frare’s documentation of Kirby’s last days, as included on LIFE.com.

You can click here to read LIFE’s full “Behind the Picture” and view more photos of Frare’s documentation of Kirby’s caretaker Peta.

*Research did not reveal how LIFE obtained the photo.

One thought on “David Kirby’s Last Days

  1. Pingback: Description and critical evaluation of a historic or contemporary piece of graphic design | lucydepardieu

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