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World AIDS Day: The Photo That Changed The Face Of AIDS

David's father holds his son as David looks on.

Life Magazine published a photo in November of 1990 of a man on his death bed, wasting away from the devastating disease that ransacked his body. The photo of David Kirby surrounded by his mourning family, quickly became “the one photograph most powerfully identified with the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

More than two decades later, on World AIDS Day, LIFE.com re-released the heart-wrenching photograph, taken by young journalism student Theresa Frare.

More than 20 years after Frare stood in the corner of Kirby’s room and took photographs of his last moments of his life, she speaks with LIFE about the picture she snapped, the controversy it sparked after it was used in a United Colors of Benetton ad, and the story behind the photograph.

“I started grad school at Ohio University in Athens in January 1990,” Frare told LIFE.com. “Right away, I began volunteering at the Pater Noster House, an AIDS hospice in Columbus. In March I started taking photos there and got to know the staff — and one volunteer, in particular, named Peta — who were caring for David and the other patients.”

There she met Peta, a fellow volunteer who was also HIV positive. Peta became a dear friend to Frare, and it was he who invited her to meet Kirby.

David Kirby was born and raised in a small Ohio town. A gay activist in the 1980s, Kirby discovered in the late 80s that he had contracted HIV. At the time of his diagnosis, he was living in California, estranged from his family. When he learned of his disease, he returned home. He wanted to “die with his family around him.” The Kirbys welcomed their son back.

“On the day David died, I was visiting Peta,” Frare recalls.

“Some of the staff came in to get Peta so he could be with David, and he took me with him. 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. Afterwards I knew, I absolutely knew, that something truly incredible had unfolded in that room, right in front of me.”

David did not mind having his picture taken, Frare recalls, ” ‘as long as it’s not for personal profit.’ ” Although Frare remembers wondering at the time of David’s death, “who’s going to see these pictures anyway?”

20 years later, most of the world has seen the photograph that she snapped at David’s last moment.

To this day, Frare will not take any money for the photo, which became controversial when United Color of Benetton used a colored version in a 1992 ad campaign. Purposed to raise awareness for the disease that was affecting, at that point, more than 12 million people, the ad sparked controversy. England’s high-profile AIDS charity, the Terrence Higgins Trust, called for the ad to be banned, claiming that it was “offensive and unethical.” Many magazines refused to run the ad.

The Kirby family said that it was merely another way to get David’s face out to the public, to raise awareness of the disease that killed their son.

“My son more or less starved at the end,” Kay Kirby remembers bluntly, adding that the Kirby family “felt it was time that people saw the truth about AIDS, and if Benetton could help in that effort, fine. That ad was the last chance for people to see David — a marker, to show that he was once here, among us.”

David Kirby died when he was just 32 years old. When he was in the hospital prior to his death, doctors and nurses wore gloves and masks whenever they were around him, fearful of contracting AIDS. The disease, which we now know cannot be transmitted by air, water, or casual touch, made many of Kirby’s initial caregivers fearful of being around him.

“My husband and I were hurt by the way David was treated in the small country hospital near our home where he spent time after coming back to Ohio,” Kay Kirby remembers. “Doctors and nurses wore gloves and gowns whenever they were around him, and even the person who handed out menus refused to let David hold one. She would read out the meals to him from the doorway.”

When Frare’s friend Peta’s HIV transitioned to AIDS, the Kirby family saw to it that Peta was not treated the way their son was.

World AIDS Day is observed tomorrow, December 1, 2012.

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