Heartbreak & Humanity
Photographer Darcy Padilla Addresses the Complexities of Poverty and the Difficult Task of Documenting Pain
by Sean Black
It was February 28, 1993, and Darcy Padilla and Julie Baird were seemingly destined to meet. For over a year, Padilla had been traveling with a medical team, consisting of a doctor, a nurse and a social worker, documenting people with AIDS, too sick to travel to a doctor’s office or a clinic. Referring to the similarities of the late 1940s’ Life Magazine photo essay by W. Eugene Smith, Padilla reflects, “it was like the ‘Country Doctor’ in an urban setting.”
On this particular day, in a hotel lobby in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, Padilla encountered a barefoot and disheveled Baird, carrying an eight day-old infant in her arms. It was Julie’s first child of six to be delivered into her world of turbulence and despair. The fated union at The Ambassador Hotel commenced an emotionally raw journey that would last the remaining eighteen years of Padilla’s anguished subject’s life. She followed Julie from home to home, from Northern California to Alaska, through sickness and marginal health, to her deathbed in 2010, as a direct result of AIDS.
The heartbreaking substance of this documentary project has been delicately amassed over time, through countless visits, phone conversations, and a series of bittersweet reunions that yielded hundreds of hours of recordings, letters, journals, and still photographs. It is a sad story that is earmarked by one very poignant point—the impervious and unconventional bond between two young women—a caring photographer and a broken mother who trusted her enough to let her in.
“Julie wanted me to tell her story,” warmly offers Padilla, a San Francisco-based documentary photographer who exudes sisterly warmth. “This project never would have happened if Julie hadn’t wanted me there.” As a stable and consistent female in her life, Padilla captured the sad details of Julie’s life, beginning with her story of when she ran away from home at the age of fourteen. She recounts Julie’s story of climbing out of a second-story window in order to escape the abusive life to which she was born, along with her painful first memories of getting drunk with her mother at the age of six and being molested by her stepfather.
When she and Padilla first met, Julie was living with Jack, her partner at the time who also had AIDS. He was the father of the baby that she was holding on their initial meeting named Rachael, an infant whose recent birth, at that time, had given each of the ill-equipped parents reason enough to live.
“Julie was incredibly damaged. She was a street child with major depression, in addition to having HIV. How do you begin to help someone like Julie? You can give them all the money in the world but it isn’t going to solve the bigger problems. That project forced me to look at how complex poverty really is; with the hopes that I could educate people and help them understand that you can walk by someone living on the streets and make all the judgments in the world about them, label them, but do you really know the difficulties and the hardships of that one person?”
That one person, Julie, has not been the only “one” subject of heartbreak in Padilla’s extensive work surrounding HIV. AIDS has been a major part of her life’s work long before meeting Julie. She followed the early protests in the encampments from the Castro down to City Hall. During that time, the local prison systems began initiatives to identify inmates with AIDS.
“The prison system can be very inhumane and I thought that the way that they were dealing with AIDS in those institutions was wrong. I became interested in these people because they were being involuntarily tested for HIV, and, when they did test positive, they were pulled from the general population and stuck into special protective units. By doing that, criminals incarcerated for minimum offenses were being thrown in with maximum crime offenders. Moreover, they were taken away from their prison jobs, taken out of the prison society, not allowed to go to church, not permitted to go to educational offerings—in their minds they were just waiting to die.”
Padilla’s determination in capturing the difficult complexities of life surfaced at the age of nine, which was soon followed by the gifting of a Brownie movie camera by her father. Her passions for human rights run strong. After turning down numerous job opportunities in her early twenties, stemming from internships with twelve leading daily newspapers, including The New York Times, Padilla decided to follow her own deeply rooted photojournalistic calling. “There were things that I wanted to do that didn’t necessarily align with the goals of the newspapers. I really wanted to do work of my own.”
Since abandoning the lucrative staff salaries over two decades ago, Padilla’s efforts have been compensated greatly in other ways. She has been recognized with some of the highest accolades in photojournalism and creative ability in the arts, including the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, The Alexia Foundation for World Peace Professional Grant, and the coveted W. Eugene Smith award for Humanistic Photography, which she was awarded in 2010 for The Julie Project.
The W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography was established in 1978 following the death of Gene Smith, the legendary American photojournalist. The prize along with a $30,000 cash award is presented annually to a photographer, like Padilla, whose work follows in the tradition of W. Eugene Smith’s during his forty-five-year career of concerned photography and dedicated compassion. It is one of the most prestigious honors in documentary photography, bestowed upon a photographer who has demonstrated an exemplary commitment to documenting the human condition.
Like many of Smith’s photo essays, including “Country Doctor,” Padilla’s work will hopefully live on in the hearts and minds of the viewers who wish to further consider her devastating work. For Padilla, Julie’s story is not over. This summer she will be photographing two of Julie’s six children whose whereabouts are known. She will also continue searching for the remaining four, who have been placed over the years into foster care and who are hopefully realizing happier childhoods than that of their late mother. Padilla also hopes to personally carry their dying mother’s wish—to let Julie’s children know that “it wasn’t their fault.”
For more information about Darcy Padilla log on to her Web site at www.darcypadilla.com.
Sean Black is a writer and photographer based in Florida. He may be contacted by e-mail via his Web site: www.seangblack.com.