In Pictures

What’s the backstory behind this homoerotic vintage photo?

· Updated on January 24, 2024

If you’ve ever visited the popular subreddit r/AccidentalRenaissance, you’ve probably come upon an extremely romantic-looking photo of two men locked in an embrace while suspended from two utility poles.

A colorized version of the photo—taken in 1967 by photographer Rocco Morabito—recently started making the rounds on Twitter, once again stunning viewers with its beauty. Named “The Kiss of Life,” the photo was taken by Morabito for the Illinois newspaper The Jacksonville Journal and won the Pulitzer Prize for photojournalism in 1968. With good reason: it’s a beautiful, gripping photo that truly tells a story.

But there’s a deeper history, and surprisingly, it’s less romantic than you’d imagine at first glance.

Morabito wasn’t looking to document an intense moment in the lives of two utility workers, but when he came upon the sight of J.D. Thompson giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to coworker Randall G. Champion, he was rooted to the spot. He was on the way to shoot scenes from a strike when he saw Thompson trying to save Champion from a deadly brush with a low-voltage power line.

Because of the awkward positioning of the workers, CPR wasn’t an option. That’s why mouth-to-mouth was the only way to breathe life back into the unconscious Champion, bringing us to this accidentally Klimptian image of the two men locked in an embrace. Because of Thompson’s quick thinking, Champion survived his brush with death.

It might have been just a dramatic day on the job for these two workers, but the power of this image unquestionably moves beyond its original context. Without knowing anything about the photo, it’s a strikingly beautiful image from an era where the sight of two men kissing was taboo in nearly any context. In the UK, 1967 was the year that gay sex acts were officially decriminalized via the Sexual Offences Act. In the states, decriminalization began in 1961, on a state-by-state basis. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that gay sex was decriminalized in all 50 states.

When Morabito captured this moment, he captured the imagination of viewers for decades to come. The “Kiss of Life” certainly carried more than one meaning for gay viewers who could look at the image and see themselves reflected, if accidentally.

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