More Than Just Sweaters


David Kirby on his death bed – By Therese Frare

It sure is a striking image.

At a glance the image denotes a young man clearly suffering from a debilitating illness. He is looking away into the distance with a vacant expression. His (presumed) grieving family are gathered around his hospital bed. The seriousness of the image is contrasted by the colour which was deliberately added to the original, black and white photo. The colour gives the image an almost cartoon (fake)  appearance.

In 1990, this image was captured during the last few moments of David Kirby life as he lay surrounded by his close family as they said  goodbye. A gay rights and AIDS activist, David’s body had become wasted following his 3 year battle with AIDS.

It may have been hard to imagine at the time but this photo, taken by journalism student Therese Frare quickly became the poster image of the time for aids. Today the photo is estimated to have been viewed by over one billion people.

Originally published in black an white, this poignant image won an World Press Photo Award but quickly gained in popularity after it was picked to be used by the United Colors of Benetton in the companies advertising campaign.

It was used to sell brightly coloured knitwear.

This wasn’t the first nor would it be the last time that the well-known corporation used shock  advertising to create and gain public interest.

Like any text, this stunning photograph was met by mixed reactions from its audience. One of the dominant readings of the text was outrage. Roman Catholics criticised the picture as they felt it mocked the classic image of Mary cradling Jesus following his crucifixion. AIDS activists saw the image as an example of a corporate exploiting a serious issue and the death of a man to see their products. The photo was also considered to be a negative portrayal of the disease.  At the same time prominent magazines of the time refused to use the advertisement.

At the same time the image was also considered by some to be a poignant symbol of AIDS activism and achieved its true ‘purpose’. To humanise AIDS and raise awareness of the disease.

Both of these opposing views are derived from the individual connotations that each viewer or audience undertakes as they attempt to decode or understand the meaning of the text.

Through my own research I was interested in learning how different perspectives of a single text could be. Although we all gaze at the same text we don’t necessarily take away the same meaning.









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