In 1999, just outside of Tampa, Florida, a man named Bryan Curtis was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. Curtis, 33, had smoked two packs a day for over 20 years. He had only months to live. Bryan decided to become something of anti-smoking campaigner. He enlisted his mum to start contacting Florida's newsrooms, which is how a Tampa Bay Times photographer and journalist ended up at the Curtis house for his final hours. As photos were taken, Bryan slipped into unconsciousness and died later that day, surrounded by family. A photo appeared in the Times, and ended up posted on WhyQuit.com. "From there," wrote the Times journalist, "it has been sent around the world."
This is the story of how Bryan Curtis arrived in, of all places, Australia.
In 2011, the Australian Department of Health was working on the country's now-famous Plain Packaging Act. Searching for the most gruesome, affecting anti-smoking images they could find, they came across Bryan. His emaciated face has appeared on Australia's cigarettes since 2012. Now, five years later, nearly every Australian has an alternate story for Bryan's life and death. I first learned about Curtis at a bar as two of my coworkers rolled cigarettes from a pack of "Bryan Tobacco." They told me that Bryan didn't die of cancer, but actually of AIDS. They told me that the images were a hoax, and a scare campaign by the Australian Government. Online, these sentiments are echoed in much the same way.
The Australian internet has turned Curtis' memory into a multipurpose meme. "Old Mate Bryan" has Twitter, YouTube and Google+ accounts; he has inspired macabre DIY joke videos; and he is the butt of jocular Reddit threads. And this is what brought Curtis's strange Australian afterlife to the attention of his daughter, Amber. She was nine years old when she lost her dad, and has only recently discovered the internet's take on his legacy. Amber talked to VICE about the real Bryan Curtis, losing her father, and how she feels about conspiratorial memes.
Bryan with Amber's step-brother. This is where the "10 weeks earlier" photo came from. Image via YouTube
VICE: Hey Amber, let's start with memories of your dad. What was he like?
Amber Curtis: My dad was jack of all trades. He didn't have a full-time job, but did mechanic work. Also, my grandma sold things at flea markets every weekend. She would make tea pots and bowls and dad would help her with that too.
What is one of your favourite memories of your dad?
My favourite thing to do with my dad was going walking along the pier, down by the beach. We did that together a lot. Every other weekend, we were at the beach.
How did you think about smoking when you were growing up?
I'm not going to lie. When I was little I was like, "Oh, well that's a cool thing." Me and my cousins would steal my grandpa's cigarettes and go out into the woods and smoke. That's what we did. After getting caught, I didn't do it again [for a while]. But then I was 18 or 19 and I started smoking again. I guess that's just what I grew up around, everybody smoking.
What do you remember about your father's death?
It started with him acting really distant. That's how I knew something was wrong.
You know that "before" picture on the cigarette pack? That's how I remember my dad. But I remember once running into the house, after I hadn't seen him for a while, looking for my dad. I was looking for the man who was in that "before" photo, and I ran right past him because I didn't recognise him. He was bald and thinner—but not as thin as right before he passed away. I didn't recognise him. It really scared me. It scared the hell out of me.
Bryan as he appears in the photos taken by the Tampa Bay Times. Image via YouTube
How did you feel about your dad sharing his story with the world?
I had heard my grandma talk about it and I thought it was great. His story needed to be out there so people can know what can happen, even if they think it won't. But to be honest, I really didn't learn. Look at me, I'm smoking now. And I watched my dad go through all that. I was there the day he passed away.
I definitely want to talk about the fact you smoke. But first, I just want to know how you found all the conspiratorial memes about your dad.
I just Googled his name and started coming across all this crap. And it's heartbreaking to see what these people are doing, and all the comments and the videos. It's hurtful. Since finding them I've been up most of the night crying and thinking about all this stupid stuff. My dad was trying to put something good out there, to make people change their ways or to stop them from smoking. And they're trying to make fun of it.
How did these discoveries affect you and your family?
Most of my family don't even know about this stuff. I just got off the phone with my aunt, and she had no idea it was happening.
What do you plan to do about these rumours?
The truth just needs to be told. All the rumours and stuff that they are saying is not even true. They just need to hear the real truth from somebody.
You mentioned you're smoking now.
Yeah and I think about it all the time. All the time. But it's such a habit, it's hard to stop. But that's why I'm always going back and looking at my dad's stuff online. It's a guilt thing. I know that he wouldn't approve of me smoking.
How often do you smoke?
I smoke about a pack a day, sometimes one and a half packs. So that's probably about eight or nine packs a week.
Do you want to quit?
After seeing more and more stuff about my dad I'm really going to do my best to quit because I know my dad isn't liking it. He's looking down on me, and he's probably saying, "What are you thinking Amber?"
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