For many, the past May 5th is just another day. Nevertheless, for those immersed in social world and in the world of art, this date has a special significance. It’s because 30 years ago, day like today, one picture and one death changed the vision that the occidental world had about one disease, one epidemic and one crisis for which no one wanted to be in charge.
In 1990 the newspaper “Life” in United Stated published a touching picture taken by Therese Frare, periodism student, on which she captured the exact moment of the last agony of David Kirby, a young homosexual with AIDS, who, in company of his parents, brethren and some friends, prostrated in his bed, starved and with eyes full of suffering, was giving his last breath before dying.
In 1990, the HIV-AIDS could be described only with 3 key words: Death, Shame and Stigma. With millions of persons affected, without adequate treatment, it was the epidemic of 20th century; the disease full of taboos, marginalization and gazes of profound discontentment. The word AIDS was a symbol of fear, rejection and discrimination in societies that ignored almost all of it; and it was thought to be a ballast, being considered only a disease of “homosexuals” (think that we know today is far from being true).
But who was the one dying on the bed? David Kirby was a young man fighting for the rights of LGBTIQ+ community. Having contracted this disease in ‘80 in California, he returned with his family in Ohio to die, being received and welcomed in the womb of his family home simply to wait for the end. Therese Frare, the photographer, was working voluntarily in a Center where family Kirby was coming to receive useless treatments of this time. She visited him during one night. And the mother of David asked her to take some pictures, just to remember these last moments of her son: this is the moment captured on the picture.
After having taken pictures, he just simply passed away. David Kirby, even in the middle of the agony, wanted those pictures to be diffused to tell his story and to fight against stigma. Let’s remember that in that time the government of United States had no social politics nor public health services to help those affected by this epidemic; the disease was conceived as sin, illness and trespassing of law.
The picture in “Life” became national and international scandal, more in the society where this topic was taboo for mass media. It was diffused widely in many media, and was recognized with the Word Press Photo (1991). But further than prices, this picture allowed the change. Everything changed.
The international brand “United Colors of Benetton”, with authorization of the family, used this picture in campaign to arise sensibility about this disease. This campaign’s name was “Pieta”. A clear allusion to “Pieta” of Michael Angel. Said campaign received many prizes, like the Prize of the European Art Directors for the best campaign in 1991 and Photographic Prize Infinity of Houston International Center. The picture was exhibited in museums all around the world and in 2003 was considered as one of 100 photos that changed the world. Nevertheless, it provoked a great scandal, in social and religious aspect. How they dared to compare dying David Kirby with Jesus Christ? The Catholic Church was the first for critic and opposition to the campaign.
After this, the photo caused the total change in mentality about this disease. This photo changed the vision the world had about AIDS, helped to fight fear and voluntary ignorance of those who didn’t like to see other’s pain, allowing them to understand that persons with AIDS were worthy of compassion, and collaborated in many aspects in giving better support to the sick and to control the epidemic.
It’s true, today’s Church is not the same as the Church of ‘90. So why to write about it in a web like this one? Because writing about it can activate our palautian gaze and feel this profound call to see at Jesus in everybody, as we declare we do, in everyone, even in David Kirby; not like the Church of ‘90 did but as Christ did.
The gift given to us by the Holy Spirit from the day of our birth, the charism, allows us to see further than a scandal. Last May 5th it is already 30 years since this photo was taken. It gives us an ideal panorama to contemplate and encounter Christ in it. Is Jesus-the Church there? Let us contemplate it attentively.
In the picture, the suffering is obvious in consumed physiognomy of David. Isn’t his face reminding us of Jesus? Or is it more important for us that he was homosexual, activist and sick of AIDS? Let’s look at the scene… the compassion and mercy of those present there should remove the vision that we have of this disease and the persons. Do we see it?
Let’s us not forget that the first corporal work of mercy is precisely to visit and take care of the sick. Why is it so scandalous for us today, as it was for the Church then? Y ask myself what was then in our hearts; I’m also worried about other stigma that we have today in our heart and that we don’t want to see. Maybe today is no longer to compare the sick of AIDS with Christ in his last hour of death… What is it?
Going back to the image. The feeling of sadness that it produces in us should remind us deeply about our palautian being, and keeping silence we should listen to this interior voice that whispers… “To heal the wounded body of Christ… to heal the wounded body of Christ” that we repeat so many times.
Let us enter deeper in the image. There are two keys that allow us to contemplate this photo and help us to focus our ecclesial gaze on it: the eyes and the hands.
The deep look of the persons on the pictures says it better than any word: the eyes of David Kirby in the moment when he has to accept the death. Isn’t his deep and serene gaze touching our heart? The gaze of consolation of a parent because his son will finally rest from pain… Isn’t it identifying us? The lack of understanding in the gaze of his niece who, embraced to his mother, tries to understand what is happening… isn’t it reminding us the moment of death of our own beloved? All these gazes talk to us about the suffering Church to whom we search to serve and heal; the Church we couldn’t see in ’90… the Church that in 2020 we are called to see.
What about the hands? The repetition of them, 10 hands in the photo that offer consolation: hands of the father embraced to his son, his baby; hands of his friend and caregiver who takes the slim hand of the dying, as if she would like to share in his sufferings; hands of his sister embraced to her daughter; hands of the small niece who doesn’t dare to touch her uncle… and finally, the hands of religious image on the wall: the open arms of Christ-the Church in Her immense love that just recovered Her son in Her womb.
Today I’m asking myself, who are David Kirby who scandalizes us as individuals, as congregation, as the Church? What scandal today doesn’t allow us to see Christ? Today many of us are comfortably seated in our house, tranquil, thinking that we already do it all… Hopefully this would be the scandal that we live today: the scandal of not wanting to see and touch, the scandal of taking care of our pure and sacred spaces where there is no place for the marginalized. Today is the time to get scandalized, but of our commodity. Hopefully this will be the scandal that will happen to us while seeing and contemplating this image.
Our way of conversion is not only personal, but also as the Church.
Orlando Carvallo C., EEA, Chile.