© Therese Frare, 1990, David Kirby on his deathbed, Ohio

In November 1990 LIFE magazine published a photograph of a young man named David Kirby — his body wasted by AIDS, his gaze locked on something beyond this world — surrounded by anguished family members as he took his last breaths. The haunting image of Kirby on his death bed, taken by a journalism student named Therese Frare, quickly became the one photograph most powerfully identified with the HIV/AIDS epidemic that, by then, had seen millions of people infected (many of them unknowingly) around the globe.

More than two decades later, on National HIV Testing Day, LIFE.com shares the deeply moving story behind that picture, along with Frare’s own memories of those harrowing, transformative years.

Learn more about the story behind the image here.