30 Photos That Changed How We Thought About The AIDS Epidemic

Published July 20, 2017
Updated April 29, 2020

In the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic reached a fever pitch, but these photographs helped change the way the world saw the disease.

Ryland Jones Aids Epidemic
Ida Jones wraps her arms around her son, Ryland, who is slowly dying of AIDS.

Ryland Jones told the photographer that he planned on killing himself with barbiturates rather than let the disease take him.

San Francisco, California. September 17, 1991.
John Storey/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Ryan White Aids Epidemic
16-year-old AIDS patient Ryan White at his new school.

Ryan White had to leave his last school because the administration refused to let him attend. They were afraid that his condition was a threat to the other kids.

Indiana. January 1, 1987.
Taro Yamasaki/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

David Kirby Aids
David Kirby's father holds his son's head tight for one of the last times before AIDS will steal the young man away.

Ohio. November, 1990.
Therese Frare

Hate Begets Hate
An AIDS activist holds up a sign protesting the decision to overturn an anti-discrimination law.

Orange County, California. June 20, 1989.
Los Angeles Public Library

Aids Protesters Embrace
Two men fighting for the rights of AIDS victims embrace.

Orange County, California. June 20, 1989.
Los Angeles Public Library

Hospice Director Ron Wolff
Hospice Director Ron Wolff checks on John Ryan, a patient who is not expected to survive his battle with the disease.

Los Angeles, California. February 16, 1988.
Los Angeles Public Library

Candlelight Vigil Crowd
A crowd of 2,000 gathers for a candlelight vigil to those who have been lost to the AIDS epidemic.

Los Angeles, California. May 30, 1987.
Los Angeles Public Library

Peta David Kirbys Helper
Peta, an AIDS patient famous for his relationship with another famously photographed AIDS victim, David Kirby.

Ohio. 1992.
Therese Frare

Ryan White Doctors Office
16-year-old AIDS patient Ryan White is examined by a doctor.

White, a hemophiliac, contracted AIDS from a contaminated supply of the Factor VIII protein he'd been injected with to treat his condition.

Indianapolis, Indiana. February 20, 1990.
Taro Yamasaki/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

David Kirby In Pain
One of the last photos ever taken of AIDS victim David Kirby.

Ohio. November, 1990.
Therese Frare

James Parcell Hug
Dr. Richard DiGioia hugs his patient, Tom Kane.

Washington, D.C. September 25, 1992
Bettmann/Getty Images

Holding The Bible High
A man arguing with AIDS activists holds up the Holy Bible in his defense.

Orange County, California. June 20, 1989.
Los Angeles Public Library

Aids Patient Examination
An AIDS patient is examined by a doctor.

New York, New York, December 10, 1986.
Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images

Aids Patient Evelyn
AIDS patient Evelyne N., mother of three boys, flexes for the camera at St. Clare's Hospital.

New York, New York. October 12, 1986.
Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images

Fight Aids Not Victims
A man marches in a candlelight vigil for those lost to the AIDS epidemic.

Los Angeles, California. May 30, 1987.
Los Angeles Public Library

Aids Disaster Area
Police officers drag away activists of the ACT UP coalition who'd been protesting outside of City Hall.

New York, New York. March 28, 1989.
New York Public Library

Aids Quilt Ann Harrigan
A woman points out the name "Terrie Ann Harrigan," sewed into the quilt in memory of her loss.

Harrigan was seven months old when she contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion.

Los Angeles, California. April 15, 1988.
Los Angeles Public Library

Aids March Protesters
Activists take the first steps in a walkathon to raise funds for AIDS research.

Los Angeles, California. July 29, 1985.
Los Angeles Public Library

Completing Quilt For Friend
Lenny Mendez stitches the name of a friend lost to AIDS onto the quilt.

Los Angeles, California. April 8, 1988.
Los Angeles Public Library

Paul Keenan Eats Dinner
A volunteer helping out at St. Clare's Hospital serves dinners to AIDS patient Paul Keenan.

New York, New York. 1986.
NY Daily News via Getty Images

Aids Quilt Man
Matt Redman, the head of the National AIDS Quilt project.

Los Angeles, California. April 8, 1988.
Los Angeles Public Library

No Rights For Sodomites
AIDS-rights supporters and the religious right clash on the streets of California.

Orange County, California. June 20, 1989.
Los Angeles Public Library

Airs Protesters With Police
A team of police officers gather, keeping their eye on the protesters fighting for AIDS rights.

New York, New York. March 28, 1989.
New York Public Library

Aids Patient In Paddington
A patient, overcome with despair, hides his head in the hospital sheets.

Paddington, United Kingdom. 1985.
Michael Ward/Getty Images

Working On Aids Quilt
A team works at sewing the names of loved ones who have been lost to AIDS onto one massive quilt.

Los Angeles, California. April 8, 1988.
Los Angeles Public Library

Police Carrying Protester
Police officers drag away an ACT UP protester in front of City Hall.

Of the 3,000 people who attended this protest, 200 were arrested.

New York, New York. March 28, 1989.
New York Public Library

Aids Quilt On Dipslay
The completed Aids Memorial Quilt hangs from the ceiling at the UCLA Campus.

800 volunteers contributed to the quilt. By the time it was done, it listed so many names that the quilt weighed seven tons.

Los Angeles, California. April 1988.
Los Angeles Public Library

Ryan White Empty Doctors Room
Ryan White's empty hospital bed shortly after the disease ate away his life.

Indiana, USA. February 20, 1990.
Taro Yamasaki/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

David Kirby With Mother
Years losing her son David to AIDS, Kay Kirby tends to his friend Peta, suffering from the same illness as her son.

Ohio. 1992.
Therese Frare

Aids Quilt Capitol
The AIDS Memorial Quilt, listing the names of those lost, on display in the nation's capital.

Washington, D.C.. April, 1988.
Los Angeles Public Library

In the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic was reaching a fever pitch. People across the U.S. and elsewhere were dying. Others were frightened by a disease that they didn't understand but were sure would spread wildly.

But the decade was also a time of change — a time when activists took the streets to open the world's eyes to the victims' suffering and to the realities of this widely misunderstood disease.

At its worst, the AIDS epidemic was claiming the lives of tens of thousands each year. But it wasn't just a killer disease, it was a sociopolitical stigma. It was a scar that labeled its victims as homosexual — whether they were or not. And for some people, that was enough of a reason to not even care whether these victims lived or died.

People closed their doors to those who needed their help. At the time, rumors were even spreading that you could catch AIDS by sharing a glass of water or a comforting hug with a suffering patient. AIDS victims lost their jobs and were ostracized by their communities. Sometimes, it even happened to children, like 16-year-old Ryan White of Indiana, who was kicked out of his school because of the epidemic of fear.

It took major action to change the way the world saw the AIDS epidemic. Activists took to the streets, working to raise both money and awareness. They held candlelight vigils and fought for the rights of the people who were dying. No more, they demanded, will victims be cast out onto the curb and left to die.

Alongside these efforts, it was also the photos that changed the way the world saw the disease. Photographs like the ones above spread through magazines and advertisements, challenging people to look at what was happening all around them. These photos forced the world to see that AIDS victims were real people — human beings with families who loved them, wasting away at the mercy of a deadly disease.

The photos made people truly look — and forever changed the way the world saw the faces of AIDS.


After this look at the AIDS epidemic, read more about how actor Rock Hudson and David Kirby changed the face of the disease.

Mark Oliver
Mark Oliver is a writer, teacher, and father whose work has appeared on The Onion's StarWipe, Yahoo, and Cracked, and can be found on his website.