The presentation remains unforgotten. A photographer shyly steps forward to present her project to the auditorium. She begins, and it is as though the audience as one collectively holds its breath. No one leaves early, even though, right from the beginning of the story they can guess what the tragic outcome will be, and many of the pictures are hard to take. At the end more than a few tears are furtively wiped away.
The Julie Project was the name of the story that US photographer Darcy Padilla presented back then. Now it has appeared in a heavy-duty, soberly designed book titled Family Love. Covering a span of nearly two decades, it is only right to call it a long-term project. It does not emphasize crude shock tactics or sentimentality, and it is never sensationalist or voyeuristic.
Darcy Padilla first met the young Julie Baird in the lobby of a shabby San Francisco hotel. At the time, the 26 year-old photographer was actually accompanying a group of doctors and social workers, who were looking after people who were HIV positive and could not afford any treatment. Julie was one of them. 19 years old, she was sitting bare-foot in the hotel lobby holding an eight day-old baby in her arms. Julie had always had a life shadowed in darkness: an alcoholic mother, abused by her stepfather, running away from home and addicted to drugs by the time she was 15, she became infected with HIV and got pregnant. The encounter between Julie and the photographer was to have weighty consequences. For 18 years, Darcy Padilla was involved in the young woman’s life – a life marked by extreme ups and downs. Padilla could have turned it into a tragic story of adversity, of poverty, drugs, suffering and violence, of an outsider’s failure to conform with society. She refrains from doing so, as she is much more concerned with friendship, trust, love, parting. The project also tells about the relationship between two very fundamentally different women.
Padilla’s commitment goes well beyond just the photography. She repeatedly takes care of Julie, keeps in touch with her, helps her with the authorities, pays bills. She is in contact with Julie’s friends, helps to find Julie’s biological father, and organizes a meeting with Julie’s son, Zach, whom she had been forced to give up for adoption. Since Julie's death in 2010, Padilla continues to support her youngest daughter, who now lives in safety with the boyfriend’s family.
A crash inevitably followed any period of stability in Julie’s life. She adamantly wanted to avoid making the same mistakes her parents made with her own children; but she was unable to kick her drug addiction and had little luck with men. She lived on the poverty line and had to move continuously. She gave birth to six children of whom five were taken away from her. On one occasion she was indicted for kidnapping, because she hid one of the children from the authorities. At some point she left San Francisco to head for Alaska where she experienced a short period of normality, but which relentless illness promptly put an end to. In the end, she was nothing more than skin and bones. When she died, it was in the company of her partner Jason and their child – and of Darcy, photographer and friend.
The book presents the whole diversity of Julie’s story. It is very thorough, yet, at the same time, you have to question how the endless hell that one person has to live through can possibly fit between the two covers of a book. Padilla consistently includes bits of dialogue, transcripts of telephone calls, her own notes to enlighten parts of Julie’s life. In the end, Family Love is an unsettling testimony to humanity, the story of a fateful encounter between two very different people, that significantly expands the photographer’s horizons. It is impossible to get the images out of your head. Anyone unmoved to tears has no capacity left to feel. Peter Lindhorst
Addendum: Just as this text was being written, Darcy Padilla’s work was awarded first place in the WORLD PRESS PHOTO’s long-term project category.
Darcy Padilla: Family Love
Editions de la Martinière
336 pages, French,
62,00 Euro, www.editionsdelamartiniere.fr