It’s been nearly 34 years since the first AIDS diagnosis. Back on June 5, 1981, the CDC produced a report that resulted in the first scientific account of what is now known as AIDS. At this time, there were five cases of a mysterious pneumonia in Los Angeles.
According to The Smithsonian:
At the end of 1981, 121 men had died from the strange disease; in 1982, the disease was given a name; by 1984, two different scientists had isolated the virus causing it; in 1986, that virus was named HIV. By the end of the decade, in 1989, 27,408 people died from AIDS.
For decades, the presence of the HIV virus has haunted the world; even today there’s still lots of stigma attached to a positive diagnosis.
In the late 1980s, gay activist David Kirby discovered he was infected with HIV. While the reaction to the result is different for everyone, his first reaction as a person living with HIV was to make a choice, to decide what to do next. He chose love.
Soon after hearing the dreadful news, Kirby, who had been living in California at the time and at odds with his family, contacted his parents. He told them that he wanted to die surrounded by his family, and asked them if he could finally come home. In spite of the pain and anxiety that came with that phone call, they welcomed him with open arms.
In the face of death, their relationship was strengthened.
The image you see above was captured by award-winning photographer Therese Frare. At the time, Frare was a journalism student.
In November 1990, LIFE magazine published the photograph, which shows Kirby’s grief-stricken family consoling him during his final moments.
This single image challenged the way the world thought about people living with HIV. It encapsulated the devastation the AIDS epidemic has on families and entire communities. As an activist, this is exactly what Kirby wanted.
Over the years, some estimate that the unforgettable photo of Kirby taking his last breaths has been seen by well over one billion people.
Kirby died in April 1990, at the age of 32.
Learn more about the heartbreaking story behind the photograph that changed the face of AIDS here.