Jamie Starboisky discusses with photographer Therese Frare the 30th anniversary of her iconic image that defined the AIDS crisis. She looks back at the hospice in Columbus, Ohio where she volunteered, the people instrumental in the image being taken, and how her photograph has found new relevancy during the coronavirus pandemic.
It is late April and Therese and I connect on Zoom while both of us are in COVID-19 lockdown, her in Seattle, and me in Manchester. She remarks how gorgeous my house is which happens to be my virtual background of the house from the film Parasite. She thinks it is hysterical because her house has just as many big beams in the ceiling. She gives me a virtual tour of her home, “of course it is raining outside” she remarks, with her dog looking on wondering what she’s doing. Seattle is well known for its rainy climate just like Manchester. It is 9am on the US West Coast (PST) and 5pm in the UK (GMT) so Therese is armed with a coffee ready for our catch-up, and to talk about the upcoming 30th anniversary of the photograph she took that became known as the ‘Face of AIDS’.
It has been a year since we last had a video chat and a lot has progressed on the project that we are working on together to tell the story of her friendship with Peta Church, the caregiver of David Kirby who is the subject of the picture. Our virtual reality project story is an immersive experience set in Pater Noster hospice and this year is one of the selected projects for Sheffield International Documentary Festival’s Alternate Realities Talent Market, offering unique meetings with industry decision makers, this year being held via video-conferencing in June. Therese mentions that the name Sheffield seems familiar to her so I ask if she has ever seen the film about male strippers – The Full Monty, and she says “oh gosh, of course yes” and we both laugh as she casts her mind back to remembering that amazing movie.
Her photograph has taken on a new powerful relevance in 2020 as media organisations like the New York Times have looked back to the art and the photography of previous pandemics, with Therese’s photograph always used as the iconic image of the AIDS crisis. It is best remembered being controversially used by Benetton in 1992, in a billboard marketing campaign which at the time sparked a series of protests. But her photograph was also seen as an important humanisation of AIDS that went on to become one of TIME’s magazine top 100 images of the 20th Century.
Our conversation moves on to looking back and talking about the people featured in Therese’s photograph, and she tells me she still liaises with the Kirby family for their blessing on licensing the photograph. Now David’s sister Susan, who is featured in the photograph (holding her daughter Sarah, sat alongside her father Bill), has taken up the mantle as the family contact.
When I went to an ACT UP (AIDS activist) conference in York some years ago as research for our virtual reality experience I asked a few of the guest speakers about their thoughts on the photograph. Most had a visceral reaction to the image itself but no one knew about the history behind it, for example they did not know that it was taken in a volunteer led hospice. So the following conversation we had, geared towards opening up information and memories with Therese, which I felt were relevant and accurate to the wider narrative of the image.
Jamie: What was your reaction to the New York Times article in March – ‘Photos from a Century of Epidemics’ including your photograph?
Therese: I was pleased that the image was still relevant in today’s world and sad that we are here again.
Therese, you were a photojournalism student and were taking photos at the Pater Noster hospice for a project. When you were volunteering there, did you ever sit and talk with David?
Well no by the time I met him he was already advanced and we didn’t have that many conversations. Just the one where I asked to take his photo and he said so long as it was not for personal profit. AIDS did a lot to your brain, your cognition, and communication and things. He was very advanced. I met him and probably within a couple of months, he passed. I think there are things that have been written – his parents have said he was an activist but I didn’t know that, I had no knowledge of him. He was estranged from his parents and came back when he got sick.
Can you describe Pater Noster in your own words?
It was a grassroots independent small hospice styled home to help people with AIDS who had fallen through the cracks of the system – that was in place at that time. It felt like a grassroots kind of place. If you like funky, I kinda do, it felt like that. It wasn’t all buttoned up and corporate.
You’ve used the word funky.
I like funky! I’d rather stay in a youth hostel, than a 5 star hotel. I just like things that are little more, maybe different, authentic.
It’s just in the UK no one ever says funky for anything.
I use funky to mean something is maybe more individual, like authentic, not packaged, a little rough around the edges but with a good core. I kinda like the favourite neighbourhood coffee shop idea or the neighbourhood restaurant.
Sounds like a word which means that it is not pristine or got a lot of glamour but it has got a lot of heart?
That’s it there you go!
How would you describe Barb who founded the hospice?
Oh like Mother Theresa. You know modern day Mother Theresa. Just tireless, always trying to do good. Loving in a time when other people weren’t acting that way. She was like a grandmother, a mother and she wore those very old-fashioned motherly clothes and she had all these young gay guys that were her friends. It was like you couldn’t believe it almost. It was just her compassion and her love and acceptance. She was very religious (Catholic), a very religious woman, and she defied any (description) – if you saw her in the supermarket you would not ever think this woman ran a hospice home for people with AIDS ever. You would never think that. She had to put up with a lot like the health department, the neighbours, the community, her own friends, her own family, and continue going ahead with what she believed was right. She was tough, you know.
What do you think her motivation was for founding Pater Noster?
Her religion. I can’t imagine anything else. Her belief, her compassion, and her belief that you had to help people and there was a need to help people. People react in all sorts of ways like a TV station in Chicago (WTTW) did a piece about a woman like Barb, called Lori Cannon, who is running a food bank during this coronavirus outbreak and included my photographs of Barb from the hospice. It’s the same thing. It’s just history! Like who shows up? It’s repetitive.
Do you have any memories of the people and staff at Pater Noster? Behind the scenes who was working there and who was visiting?
Some gay guys that didn’t have the virus and some were healthy-ish gay guys who did have the virus, and then there were straight people too, and some people that had AIDS due to drug use, and some women like church ladies that showed up. It really ran the gamut.
You previously mentioned a food bank was operating at Pater Noster. What kind of people accessed it and were there any other services they offered beyond palliative care?
They had a food bank and a clothing exchange and people that accessed it were people who didn’t have, who needed those things. Once again people fell through the cracks maybe they did have food stamps or whatever but it didn’t cover it. Not everyone qualifies for certain programmes the government had. These were people who for whatever reason still needed help.
Do you have any memories of Peta at Pater Noster?
Honestly at Pater Noster a lot of the memories are not like happy memories even for Peta there was a lot of personal anguish and things. He was a caregiver but he was also dealing with a lot of personal anguish. In terms of happy memories or fun memories they are probably more like round North Dakota (with Peta), like away from that. You know I was watching a TV show with my daughter because we are in COVID-19 lockdown; ‘Stranger Things’ – I don’t know if you’ve seen it it’s sort of a fun show. But there’s these two teens that are sort of falling in love but they really don’t know it, and this other older guy says to them: “oh my gosh you are perfect for each other”, and they are like “why?” and he goes “well you have the most important bond of all you’ve shared a personal trauma.” I think that’s so true – if you go through trauma with someone, it is so bonding, – we had the trauma together – all the trauma – and that’s the bond, and so to think of that as a pleasant memory I really can’t. But there’s other memories that are more pleasant.
That’s really powerful like present day Netflix jumping out at you and connecting with your past and friendships and bringing a new relevance. So that’s really poignant.
Yeah guys that went to the war together. They are war buddies. They are brothers right. They’ve shared this trauma. Really hard for other people to understand what that trauma was like.
It’s unique to you two.
The Kirbys went on, after David passed, to become house parents of another branch of Pater Noster outside the main block. I was just thinking about how the hospice homes grew as the need increased.
It grew and as the need for those services declined then it shrunk.
Were all branches of Pater Noster always in homes?
Yeah just homes
How do you view your picture now and how do you view its legacy?
I’m always shocked and amazed when someone emails me and I’m like “what?” It just continues to be amazing that it has a relevancy but I am sad that it is relevant. Like even now I don’t want this coronavirus going on but I’m happy that my image is relevant somehow but would I prefer it not to be relevant? Yes! I would prefer it not to be relevant.
Why do you think it is important for it to be a TIME magazine image – top 100 of the 20th Century?
I don’t even understand that so I don’t know. Why aren’t there more images? Why weren’t more things published? I think probably there were more images they just weren’t published. There’s probably lots of people that have images that they couldn’t get published and I just got through the crack somehow. I had trouble getting it published too. There must be so many images. People didn’t want to hear it, they didn’t want to see it, whatever, so photographers couldn’t afford just spending their time on the project – I mean I was a student – I was a grad student. So it was just circumstance, luck, I don’t know what but I’m sure there are lots of images. Things become iconic and then that’s what they are.
Thank you Therese so much for speaking with me today it has been so wonderful and now I’m going to relax and do some Tai Chi.
You’re welcome and health care is part of the equation. Take care of yourself and then go save the world!
And by the way this (VR) team is funky!
Amazing I love that!
You get a funky rating. Take care, talk to you soon.
Bye for now
To find out more about the virtual reality experience Therese & Peta: A Tale of Two-Spirits please click the picture below:
The people connected to the photograph – Where are they now:
Therese Frare, photographer, lives in Seattle, Washington and works as a project manager in web communications. She lives a normal life with a family, a puppy and garage door opener and is hanging low at the moment.
Bill Kirby, David Kirby’s Dad has passed and Peta Church, David’s caregiver (visible only by his hands in the photograph) died from AIDS in August 1992 having been cared for by the Kirby family. Kay Kirby, David’s Mom and sister Susan still live in Ohio.
Barb Cordle who founded Pater Noster hospice where the image was taken was living in a nursing home in Florida. When we emailed her to give her an update on the project Therese sadly got an out of office reply with a link to her obituary. 109 patients died in her arms and Barb passed away in March 2020.