Ryan White

In the summer of 1987 People magazine editors started planning an in-depth, 24-hour look at people with AIDS in America. (People, August 3, 1987.)  Photographer-reporter teams were dispatched across the country, and writer Bill Shaw and I were assigned to spend a day with Ryan White. His family had recently been hounded out of Kokomo, Indiana, because Ryan, a hemophiliac, had contracted this new, dreadful disease from one of his many blood transfusions.

He had been expelled from school as soon as it was learned he had contracted AIDS.   But Ryan knew he couldn’t infect others through casual contact, More than anything, Ryan wanted to go to school. So Jeanne, his mother, and he fought his expulsion in court. The Whites eventually won. The court order mandated Ryan’s return to school but the students didn’t welcome him.  He would walk down a crowded hallway and all the other students would run from him, hugging the opposite wall. He had horrible things written on his locker. Kids would move their desks as far from his as possible. His mother’s tires were slashed.  Bricks and stones were thrown at their windows.  Someone shot a bullet through their door. Ryan decided that he did not want to die in Kokomo. He couldn’t bear the idea of being buried there. He visited the cemetery in Cicero, a more tolerant town just 30 mile south on Highway 31 and decided he would like to be buried there.  Elton John loaned the Whites the downpayment for a house they liked and in July 1987 they moved in.

We met Ryan, then 15, soon after he, Jeanne and his sister, Andrea started feeling settled. It was a very hot and humid July day. The air conditioning was turned off and all the windows closed. Ryan wore his winter jacket over a shirt and sweater.  On his feet were his furry “Bigfoot” slippers.  A blanket was draped over his lap.  Occasionally he’d shuffle over to the stove, turn it on and warm his hands over the glowing burner.



It’s very hot and humid in Cicero, Indiana, but Ryan White is “freezing.” Hi is wearing a  winter jacket, a sweater and shirt.  “Huge Bigfoot” slippers are on his feet.  A blanket is draped over his shoulders and he is still “freezing.”


Ryan gets up often to warm his hands over the electric stove.

Ryan ordered a big meal at his favorite restaurant. But he feels too sick to eat. He excuses himself several times to go to the bathroom and throw up.

Ryan and Jeanne talk a bit before nightly prayers.


The next morning, Ryan doesn’t feel like eating breakfast.  Instead, he looks out at his new Cicero neighborhood.  His winter nightshirt almost covers his 54 pound, Hemophilia and AIDS ravaged body.

9 months later I find myself photographing an outgoing, happy, seemingly heathy teenager.  Ryan’s world has changed.  Boys from the neighborhood knock on his door asking to see his extensive G.I. Joe collection.

Others visit to get a Ryan White hair-do

– all with the enthusiastic approval of their parents.

Ryan White

Wally pulls Ryan on his skateboard.

Ryan gets scores of letters weekly.  He shows Jeanne one.

Heather, Ryan’s best friend, visits after school

Ryan speaks at a press conference at the Omaha, Nebraska International Airport.  He was just given the “Keys to the City.”

Ryan talks to students at Father Flanagan’s Boy’s Town.


One asks, “How does it feel knowing your going to die?”  “It’s how you live your life that counts,” he replies. 

Ryan in math class at Hamilton Heights High School, in his new town, Cicero, Indiana. In Kokomo students moved their desks as far from Ryan’s as possible. 

Ryan with classmates by his locker in the hallway of Hamilton Heights High School. In Kokomo when Ryan walked down a busy hall, all the other students “hugged” the opposite wall, as far from Ryan as possible.

Though more than anything Ryan wanted to live like a normal teenager, he realized that his story was important, and that it was his responsibility to tell it. Fear of the deadly AIDS virus fostered many false rumors that he hoped he could help dispel. Though he was very shy and had tried hard to stay out of the public eye, Ryan started accepting more local and national media interviews. A feature film was made about his life. The bravery he exhibited while confronting the disease he knew would kill him, captured the hearts of this nation. Announcing Ryan’s death the New York Times wrote: “Ryan White, the Indiana teen-ager who put the face of a child on AIDS and served as a leader for gaining greater understanding and compassion for those with the deadly disease, died today. He was 18 years old… His struggle helped pierce myths… Advocates of AIDS education said Ryan White served as a deterrent to bigotry throughout the nation.”


It’s later in the fall and the temperature is dropping.  When Jeanne asks what it’s like outside, Ryan puts his cold hand on her cheek. His health is deteriorating.


Ryan fills up his new Mustang 5.0 – a present from Michael Jackson.


Sores start reappearing on Ryan’s legs.  Jeanne cleans and dresses them.  Jeanne has never worn gloves or other protective gear while caring for Ryan – never wanting him to feel more isolated than he already did.

Martin Kleiman, Ryan’s long time doctor discusses his latest blood test.

When Dr. Kleiman asked me to leave the room so Ryan could undress for the examination, Ryan said, “Let Taro stay.  I want people to see what AIDS looks like.”

At the end of March 1990 I received the dreaded call from Jeanne, “Please come to Riley Hospital.  (In Indianapolis) Ryan is dying.”  Jeanne slept in a rocking chair in Ryan’s room in the intensive care unit almost every night. Ryan was in a coma for the last 9 days of his life.

Jeanne, Andrea, and Dr. Martin Kleiman give the local and national media daily updates on Ryan’s condition in the Riley Hospital temporary press room.


Ryan’s Angel

Intensive care nurses care for Ryan.

Jeanne and Elton at Ryan’s bedside.  Jeanne asked me not to photograph his face because he was so swollen.  She didn’t want to remember him looking like that.


Michael Jackson embraces Jeanne at the funeral home.


Ryan’s classmates say a tearful goodbye in Indianapolis’ Second Presbyterian Church, the largest in the city.

Michael Jackson, Jeanne and Andrea in a front pew.  First Lady Barbara Bush is behind them.

Elton John sings his farewell song to Ryan, Skyline Pigeon.  CNN broadcasts the funeral live to a huge worldwide audience. 1500 mourners fill the church while a large crowd listens to the service outside.

One of Ryan’s favorite nurses comes in on her day off to package the many cards, drawings, banners and posters that were sent to Ryan in the previous days.

Jeanne visits Ryan’s grave stones.

Ryan White:

December 6, 1971 to April 8, 1990

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