Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. (Deuteronomy 4.9)
The Photo That Brought AIDS Home
About a year ago, I crossed paths with Therese Frare, a staggeringly gifted photographer in the Pacific Northwest. I was part of a team working on a new HIV product launch to occur less than a month before the 30th anniversary of the first AIDS diagnoses. The serendipitous timing opened the door to include a retrospective of the extraordinary leaps in HIV/AIDS treatment and reaffirm our client's contributions as a major leader in the field. We wanted Therese to photograph the event for a number of reasons. Her talent spoke for itself, and when we approached her about taking the job, the conversations revealed her to be an ebullient, sharp-minded person—someone we’d enjoy working with. Her role on this particular job would be particularly significant, though, as she holds a unique position in HIV/AIDS history.
In 1990, during graduate studies in photography at Ohio University, Therese volunteered at Pater Noster House, an AIDS hospice in nearby Columbus. An assignment for a visual storytelling class led her to ask one of the patients, David Kirby, and his caregiver, Peta—an AIDS patient himself—if she could document their experiences with the affliction. After some justifiable resistance from the hospice (due to patient privacy concerns), Therese was cleared to shoot David and Peta’s interactions. David was in end-stage, meaning Peta’s main concern was making his final days as comfortable as possible. On one occasion, Therese was at the hospice when Peta was called to the young man’s bedside. Seeing his parents there, she discretely waited in the hall. His mother asked Therese to come in, telling her, “We’d like you to photograph the family saying their final goodbyes to David.” As the heart-wrenching scene played out, Therese stood in a corner, capturing it moment-by-moment. While proximity to the event muted her appreciation of her photographs’ power, David’s expressed desire that his story be told inspired Therese to mail copies of one shot to the World Press and Life magazine. Life immediately picked it up and published the picture in its November 1990 issue. It’s now known the world over as “the face of AIDS” and “the photo that brought AIDS home.”
When Therese’s photograph appeared, we were ending the AIDS crisis’s first decade. We’d seen a multitude of images of the virus’s emaciated victims—from iconic celebrities like Rock Hudson to nameless African children—and heard hundreds of agonizing stories. Those of us cursed to witness AIDS’ ravages up-close and personal were emotionally depleted, but for seething anger at how little concern was shown for the lives devastated by the disease. Like every other catastrophic illness, an AIDS diagnosis triggered a ripple effect that emanated from the patient to loved ones nearest him/her, then on to more casual friends and acquaintances, and finally into her/his various professional and social circles. Because its first US targets were gay men—many with long histories of casual promiscuity—it was all too easy to minimize AIDS suffering as a minority issue. The public at large felt safely insulated from its threat and, therefore, not responsible for its treatment, containment, or cure. This false sense of security was further enhanced when the virus began surfacing in other specific populations: blood-transfusion patients, IV drug abusers, sex workers, and so on. AIDS was a “not-us” sickness, and hence “not our problem.” Therese’s photograph changed that.
For the first time, people removed from AIDS’ realities stepped into its dark shadows. Fathers felt Mr. Kirby’s anguish, as he cradled his son's gaunt face and clung to his rail-thin arm. Mothers perceived the stormy emotions raging behind Mrs. Kirby’s stoic expression, while she pulled David’s kid sister—confused, frightened, a child too young to know such sorrow—to her bosom. The emptiness in David’s eyes led one to imagine, for all practical purposes, he was already gone before this final farewell. It pierced the heart of every mother’s child. The anonymous hand reaching into the scene softly spoke of someone outside the family with compassion and courage to touch the dying man—of someone who chose to be there. Above them, the outstretched, nail-scarred hands of Jesus beckoned David into His eternal care, promising to hold the wounded hearts he left behind. This was too real—too personal—to ignore. Therese’s photograph allowed millions around the world to see what we who’d had sat at far too many bedsides had seen. Never again would they look on AIDS in any other way.
Sacred Duty to Remember
Twenty years later, our hearts overflow with gratitude for God’s mercy and provision. Medical breakthroughs have diminished AIDS’ savagery. How thankful we are that horrific scenes like David Kirby’s are rare exceptions and no longer the rule. We no longer speak of an “AIDS holocaust” and rarely do we see images of AIDS-related suffering. Yet in our rejoicing, we must not confuse AIDS’ disarmament with decisive defeat. Its status as a treatable condition on par with hypertension, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses introduces the peril of assuming AIDS is no longer a grave disease to be avoided at all costs—that it can be “lived with” and its threat has decreased. Worst of all, we can never conclude that its relative invisibility in the media and our daily environment means AIDS has “gone away.” It is present to the point of prevalence. It is very real and, until it’s completely destroyed, it’s not going away.
We who survived AIDS’ initial onslaught have a sacred duty to remember, honoring the thousands of precious souls prematurely torn from our midst. Yet our sacred duty to remember extends to never forgetting our children—and, now, their children—have not seen, felt, or known what we experienced. We’re fools to expect they'll independently ascertain the gravity of what they’re playing with when they put themselves at risk of contracting the virus. As Therese did, we must reveal to them AIDS in all of its heartbreaking ugliness. We must tell them stories of its unbearable suffering and sorrow. We must keep it before them, even though they look away. In Deuteronomy 4.9, God commands, “Be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.” May hearts of compassion and desire to please our Creator compel us to obey.