Calling My Children

Calling My Children
An Interview with David Binder

Gail tries to keep her strength as she and Ronald get Ronald Jr. and Frank dressed for the first day of school. 1989. Photo © David Binder. All rights reserved
Gail tries to keep her strength as she and Ronald get Ronald Jr. and Frank dressed for the first day of school. 1989.
Photo © David Binder. All rights reserved

Gail Farrow passed away from AIDS-related causes in 1989, leaving behind a husband, Ronald Watson, and four sons, Ronald, Jr., Frank, Kenny, and Benny. Award-winning photojournalist and filmmaker David Binder was with her and her family for a year and a half, every day, documenting the last year of her life and the period after her death, as her family came to grips with their loss.

That loss was tempered by the fact that Gail, dictating to a hospital nurse, wrote letters to her sons. She was determined that, long after she had died, her words and wisdom and love would remain. The family—her family—would know a mother’s love, though differently than most. And she agreed to the photo essay project for the same reason.

The series of photographs capture Gail in the midst of caring for her children as she struggles with her health, having contracted HIV through a blood transfusion during a cancer treatment. The photographs show the small joys of family life and the looming sorrows, too, as she soldiers on, and, in her words, tries not to die, tries to be there for her children. The photographs follow her family after her death—trips to her grave, a first Christmas without her, a small triumph on the basketball court.

This first series was published in magazines, In Health and Hippocrates. Binder has continued to check in with the family every ten years, through photos (the 1998 installment appeared in Life Magazine) and then film, with his award-winning short documentary film, Calling My Children. The film has engaged audiences at film festivals and events, even screening at the United States Capitol during the International AIDS Conference in 2012. PBS stations around the country have broadcast and rebroadcast his film during the month of May in part to honor Gail’s life and legacy as a mother. Each update provides a new chapter in this ever-changing family chronicle.

Now, Binder is reuniting with the family. Gail’s children are now the age of her and her husband when the project first started; her and her husband’s children now have children around the same age they were back then. This ten-year update has been envisioned as a feature-length documentary film.

A&U: PBS’s recent rebroadcast of 2009’s Calling My Children means even more people have been introduced to Gail and her family. Why do you think this project is so enduring with viewers?
David Binder:
People find the story so recognizable and relatable. They are engaged with Gail on a personal level as a mother knowing she won’t be around for her children, and they are engaged with the kids in feeling their heartbreak and lament.

In a 2012 interview with A&U, you talked about a possible follow-up in 2018, saying, “It’s really up to them. I said [to Frank], ‘We’re getting close to maybe doing the next update,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, you know, you should really be in the next one.’ So, from what I said before about not wanting to be a part of it at all, I can think about it now, if he thinks it would be a good thing.”
I have started the next installment, and I am including myself in some ways. I’m still uncomfortable about doing this. I don’t want the attention on me at all, and I certainly don’t want to be the subject of this story at all. I do appreciate that my relationship with the family, and how I’ve continued this project for twenty-seven years, is interesting, but I want to ensure that they remain the focus of the story.

What prompted this new installment and how do you see it fitting in with the series?
I’ve produced installments every ten years. The next ten-year marker is approaching. I’ve talked with everyone to see what they think about doing it and they all very much want to do it. I’m particularly thrilled about this next installment because these children are now young men about the same ages that their parents were when the project began. And some of them have kids of their own who are around the same ages that they were all those years ago. So it’s a particularly poignant time in their lives.

Recent movies like Dallas Buyers Club, The Normal Heart, and How to Survive a Plague seem to champion “the activist.” How do you see this project in relation to representing the experiences of those living with and affected by AIDS?
I don’t know about that. I think that the reason Gail is so relatable is because she wasn’t an activist in that way. She was a mother. And her kids, while involved, are not activists, either. So it’s a different story. It is interesting that these stories about the early days of AIDS are now popular culture pieces. It proves that everyone involved in the cause in those early days were right in their advocacy and their unwillingness to be passive. It’s a strong message.

I know you launched a Kickstarter campaign that ended early this month. Are there other ways for people to help support the project?
Yes, absolutely, and thanks for asking. We continue to need help funding this project. I have had wonderful support over the years, but most of this has been possible from my own resources. So please, we need help. Contributions can be made through the link on the film’s Web site.

For more information about the project and how to support it, log on to:

Reporting by Chael Needle