Monday, November 8, 2010

Adding Details to the Scope of Darcy Padilla's Epic Documentary Project

Julie Baird and infant, 1993, by Darcy Padilla
 Last week I put up a post on the blog I write for the Huffington Post about Darcy Padilla, the San Francisco-based photographer who recently was awarded the 2010 W. Eugene Smith Grant for Humanistic Photography. Padilla received the $30,000 grant to continue work on a project that has already taken up 18 years of the photographer's life. In 1993, Padilla began documenting the life of Julie Baird, a 19-year-old woman she met while following a team of social workers and doctors through an S.R.O. hotel in San Francisco's Tenderloin district. Julie, who'd recently been diagnosed with AIDS, was holding her eight-day-old infant. The child's father, Jack, also had AIDS. Nearly two decades later, Baird lay dying in Alaska, under hospice care, and Padilla was there. She was there on September 27, when Baird died.

In my Huffington Post piece I asked what I considered the most obvious question: What made her want to spend a significant portion of her own life telling the story of Julie Baird's life? I got some of the answers I anticipated, and much more.

Baird comforts a son, 1994
Padilla told me that Baird's story illustrated issues about poverty—issues that she has been focusing on since she studied journalism at San Francisco State University. But what makes her work with Baird so astonishing is the compulsive story telling that drives it forward. Padilla told an epic American story.

There were moments along the way, Padilla told me, when she thought the story might end, but somehow it never did.

"Once was back in 1998, when she met this guy Paul, and she was like, 'We're moving to Stockton, and he got a job, she was looking for a job, and they got a two-bedroom apartment that was better than any place she had lived in the Tenderloin," Padilla said. Baird's life of abuse, drug use, and poverty seemed to be headed in a new direction. "I thought, 'Oh my god, this is so good for her, she has a decent shot now. But then she had a miscarriage, and Paul began abusing her one-year-old." And Julie's story went on.

Padilla also told me that even after spending 18 years photographing Julie she really had managed to capture "only a small sliver" of her subject's real life. I made the mistake of assuming that Padilla had sacrificed for her art, as I put it in the Huffington Post piece. But she said that in fact it was a kind of luxury to spend so much time on a single story—to tell it to its end.

On her website she has assembled photographs, newspaper clippings, and other documents that help fill in the detail of Baird's life. And it is the detail, rather than the scope, that makes Padilla's project so compelling. Inevitably, she became a participant as well as an observer. Once, she told me, while doing research about Baird (who at one point was arrested for taking her children from a hospital after they had been claimed by the state) on the Internet, she came across a posting that said, "If you're Julie Baird from Anchorage, Alaska, born 10/10/73, you're the one. Call this number."

Julie and her father, reunited
Julie reads letter from son Zach, or Jason Jr.
Padilla called. It was Baird's father, who'd been estranged from his daughter for 31 years. Padilla told Julie, who eventually contacted the man. It led to a period of warmth and peace in Julie's life. "There's a picture of him, a shot of an arm coming into the frame that is his arm," Padilla said. "He had her name tattooed on his arm the year she went missing—the year her mother stole her away to San Francisco." It was one of those times the story might have ended, but the father died suddenly of a heart attack about a year and a half after the reunion. "Julie went into the hospital with pnuemonia for the first time," said Padilla. "And several months later she told me she was pregnant. I told her I was happy for her, but wasn't sure that it was the best thing for her health. I could see she wasn't rebounding from illnesses the way she once did."

Julie and daughter Elyssa meet Zach
 Then in 2008 a woman called Padilla and told her that she had adopted one of the children Julie had given birth to. She flew to San Francisco to meet Padilla, and showed her pictures of the boy, borh Jason Jr. and now named Zach. Later Padilla met Zach himself. "It was Zach's desire to know where his biological parents were that prompted the woman to do all this," Padilla said. Zach and his adoptive mother wrote letters to Julie, which Padilla delivered to Alaska. The letters are also on Padilla's website. In August of 2008 she flew to Alaska again to photograph Julie's reunion with Zach.

When Julie lay dying last summer, Padilla was there, taking pictures. She got a call on her cell phone—a small miracle, she notes, because the reception in Alaska was usually no good—and it was Zach. He wanted to talk with Julie. "He thanked her for having him," said Padilla. "And then he said, 'You know, I only met you once, but when you kissed me on the forehead it was my favorite time.' It took every bit of strength Julie had to talk, and when she hung up she went into a coma."

It was another point at which the story might have ended. Now Baird wants to use the Smith Grant money to set up scholarships for Baird's five children, if she can locate them all. So the story isn't over yet.

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