NEW YORK -- It's an arresting image: a family grieving at the bedside of a sunken-cheeked young man who had died of AIDS just moments earlier. The picture appeared in the November 1990 issue of Life magazine and went on to win several international photojournalism awards, which brought it to the attention of a design firm working for Benetton.

Now it's one of several disturbing photographs being used in the Italian-based sportswear company's latest advertising campaign. Hand-colored, with the green-and-white "United Colors of Benetton" logo inserted near the bedrails where the man's sister and niece embrace, it appears in the March issues of Vanity Fair, Vogue and other magazines.

The questions it has stirred -- whether the ad raises awareness of the disease or exploits it, whether a company known for provocative advertising has again pushed the envelope or descended to new levels of bad taste -- will be aired at a press conference here this morning attended by founder Luciano Benetton and by William and Kay Kirby of Stafford, Ohio, whose son's death is depicted in the ad.

David Kirby was 33 when he died in Pater-Noster House, a home for AIDS patients in Columbus. An activist who launched the Ohio AIDS Foundation and gave talks and interviews about his disease in an attempt to educate the public, Kirby permitted free-lance photographer Therese Frare to document his battle. "He'd be pleased with the publicity," says Barb Cordle, volunteer director for the Pater-Noster Houses, who nursed and befriended him. "He was committed to the cause of AIDS. There is no harm to what Benetton is doing with this picture."

His parents, who had invited Frare to photograph their goodbyes as their vigil neared its end in May 1990, are also expected to defend the use of the picture, to which they consented. Volunteers who help care for AIDS patients, the Kirbys plan to retire this spring (William works for a parcel delivery company; Kay is a cook in a rectory) in order to become the unpaid managers of a new Pater-Noster AIDS residence. Frare says the undisclosed sum that Benetton is paying for use of the photograph, which she is sharing with the family, will help make that possible.

Among other AIDS organizations, however, the ad has caused anger and dismay. Two representatives from Gay Men's Health Crisis, the country's oldest and largest AIDS service organization, met with one of the ad's designers last week to explain their opposition. "They're exploiting AIDS to make a buck," says GMHC spokesman David Eng. "It does raise an issue, to a certain degree, but it doesn't follow through. There's no copy in this ad except for their logo and a line telling you what number to call for the nearest store."

Had the ad included an AIDS hot line number to call for information or urged support for local AIDS organizations, "something to give people the next step," GMHC would have found it more acceptable, Eng says.

Jim Graham, administrator of Washington's Whitman Walker Clinic, says that while the use of such a photograph is "extraordinary" in commercial advertising, "it offends my taste that anything can be used to sell sweaters." The accompanying ruckus, he suggests, will only help sell more. "Controversy is publicity is profit," he says. "The Washington Post is going to provide coverage for them. ... If they wanted to do a public interest campaign, it would be very different from this."

The People With AIDS Coalition in New York also takes exception. "Most people in the U.S. think a positive HIV diagnosis is a death sentence, and the photograph reinforces that," says Executive Director Christopher Babick. Though he approves of Benetton's attempting "socially significant advertising," Babick finds the photo "stereotypical" in its grimness.

The five other images employed in the campaign (most magazines that run them will use only one or two) are also striking and unnerving. All are photojournalistic depictions of human misery: a firebombed car; fleeing refugees climbing onto an overladen boat in one ad and an overladen truck in another; a couple carrying a few meager possessions through flood waters. One enigmatic picture shows a soldier with a rifle slung across his back, holding what seems to be a human bone.

"We're not telling people what to think about them. We're saying, 'Here they are, draw your own conclusions; we think these are serious issues,' " argues Benetton Communications Director Peter Fressola. "We're willing to take the heat if people think they're not appropriate subjects for advertising. We disagree. ... We think it's a hell of a lot better than just putting a pretty girl out there in a pretty sweater."

Benetton, with 500 stores dotting malls across North America, annually spends about $80 million worldwide on advertising. Its ads have frequently been accompanied (and probably augmented) by controversy. Last spring several magazines, including Self, Essence and Cosmopolitan, declined to run Benetton's photograph of unrolled pastel condoms arranged against a white background like colorful balloons. Another photograph of two children, a white one with halo-like blond ringlets and a black one with two twists of hair suggesting horns, led to reproaches about racial undertones. So did earlier ads depicting a black woman nursing a white infant, and a black hand and white hand manacled together.

"We don't think companies can continue to spend billions of dollars to say, 'Ours washes whiter,' " Fressola says, defending the company's approach. Although he acknowledges that the ads promote "brand awareness, name recognition, that sort of thing," he says they will also raise social consciousness.

David Kirby would have agreed, says photographer Frare, whom Benetton is also flying in from Seattle for today's press conference. "To me the Kirbys' support is everything," she says. "Without it, I don't know what the photograph means. With it, I think it means a lot.

"Here's a family that had enough courage to invite me into an incredibly personal moment, and then share it with everyone else, because it was in keeping with their son's work and their own."