Jason scolds Elyssa for not listening, while Julie, weakened by AIDS, watches. Julie and Jason had moved to a home in "the bush" to save money: no running water, no electricity and 20 miles from the nearest town. Alaska 2010 © Darcy Padilla / Agence VU
After spending 18 years documenting the life and death of Julie Baird, photographer Darcy Padilla hasn't moved on from the story, focussing now on Julie's partner Jason and his daughter Elyssa in a body of work she hopes will be more optimistic. In an interview with Olivier Laurent, Padilla explores her commitment to this family
Darcy Padilla first showed her work at Visa pour l'Image two years ago - taking Perpignan by surprise with her 18-year project following Julie, an addict and AIDS-stricken mother of six. "Jean-François Leroy had asked me to send between 100 and 150 images for consideration for that screening," she recalls. "And he emailed back and said he wanted to use all of the photos." The presentation lasted eight minutes, an usually long-time for one single photographic project, and left the audience shattered.
This year, she's back at Visa pour l'Image with Everything is Going to be OK, her follow-up to The Julie Project. "It's a work in progress," she tells BJP's Olivier Laurent, "I just wanted to share it with Jean-François to have his opinion, so I was humble and honoured that he wanted to do an exhibition right away."
In Everything is Going to be OK, Padilla picks up her story after Julie died on 27 September 2010, focusing this time on Jason, Julie's boyfriend, and Elyssa, their daughter, who both lived in Alaska. "I've known Jason since 1998 - he's been in Julie's life that long," she says. "I couldn't walk away from him just because she had died. Unlike Julie, he's somebody that has a lot more problems mentally. Julie was a very articulate, smart woman for somebody in her situation. She didn't pity herself. She knows that she made certain choices in her life that gave her what she was left with. Jason is a much more complex person and I really did not think that he was capable of being a father, and I was hoping that he would be able to do it."
Jason, Padilla explains, wants to be a good father to Elyssa, but "he can't seem to figure it out. He knows he needs to do something but he doesn't know what it is, and you can explain it to him but because of his severely low IQ and his anxiety levels, he can't grasp it. He can't figure it out, so, as a result, his poverty was getting worse each day." That's when Jason's sister from the family that had adopted him as a child, reached out to Padilla. "His adopted sister had been on my website, and it was the first time she had seen her brother in 16 years," says the San Francisco-based photographer. "She sent me the most amazing email, and we had a long conversation about Jason. I went to Portland to meet her and her family and it was just wonderful. I thought that if there was any place where he could have a support system - because Julie had been in charge of everything - it had to be in Portland with this family."
Of course, she adds, getting Jason and Elyssa to Portland was fraught with issues. "The week he was going to move, the social services showed up and threatened to take Elyssa away," Padilla remembers. "His sister had to come up and show pictures of her family to social services for them to let him go."
The photographer also bought plane tickets for both Jason and Elyssa. When asked why she felt she had to intervene in this way, Padilla doesn't hesitate. "Julie, when she was alive, Jason and Elyssa are surrounded by doctors, social workers, nurses and people who do outreach. As far as I'm concerned, their social problems and their situation is not part of my job. There are people who go to school to become doctors and social workers who do an admirable job. But, his situation in Alaska was so bad - it was probably the worse filth that I had seen in Julie's life and in his life - that he really needed help. And he just couldn't get an airline ticket to move to Portland to be with his adopted family - a family that was willing to help them. So, I bought them an airline ticket. That's something I felt comfortable doing. For me, it's like giving somebody a ride somewhere. It was expensive, but it's just money."
Jason tries his best to be a father, but wonders if he is succeeding. Jason was taken from his parents as an infant. His mom was a teen alcoholic. His dad went to prison for robbing a store with six-week-old Jason in the front seat of the car. Alaska, 2011 © Darcy Padilla / Agence VU
In Portland, Jason moved into a two-bedroom apartment. "His family has been amazing. They've completely furnished it and they bought clothes for the both of them. They really gave them a new start." And, says Padilla, this is where the story changes. "I'm thinking this could be a really positive story. He's in a new environment, and that environment will hopefully offer Jason and Elyssa a better life. And that's where the title comes from. This is something his sister told Jason when he decided to let Elyssa live with her. She told him many times: 'Everything is going to be OK'."
Padilla has already spent more than 20 years following Julie, Jason and Elyssa, but she doesn't see an end to that story. "I don't know where Elyssa is going to finally end up and, of course, it will be dependent on whether she wants me to follow her - she gets that choice. She could turn 13 and just say: 'No more pictures, aunt Darcy'. But it would be wonderful to see her go to college and become this fabulous woman in our society. That's the optimistic view - I would like to be able to see that. But I have no idea what that path will be."
One thing is sure, Julie, Jason and Elyssa have become part of Padilla's life. "I always have this feeling that with photography we go in - and I do this myself with other projects - for a very limited amount of time and walk out and say that we have the story. That has always bothered me because we don't always have the story. What we have is a very small slice of time. It's very small. Even the time that I'm with them - I may go up there five or six times a year and it may be a solid 72 hours each time - but it's still a small portion of their lives." Yet, she adds, she sees her work more as a novel or a feature film than a commercial. "I think it's more interesting to do it this way when you're trying to have a bigger discussion about these social issues or poverty."
Padilla has also started working on a documentary film about Julie's and Jason's lives. "I began shooting video in 2005 when I realised that Julie was ultimately going to die," says the photographer. "I thought that she was not going to be there for her children if they tried looking for her [Julie's first five children were taken away from her], and that she wouldn't be able to tell them why she gave them up. So, I wanted her to be able to have that conversation with them. I wanted to create something that would help them understand."
The film won't be released for another two to four years, says Padilla. "It's been overwhelming because I've approached it in the same way than photography. Most people, when they start a documentary film, have it pretty planned out. I've done it backwards: I've just been gathering information. I have tons of notes and video and now I'll need to spend some time to make sense of them. But it's a great opportunity to be able to see and hear Julie. It's a whole different reality, and something that still photography can not do. It creates interaction. It's a lot more tangible than still photography."
In the meantime, Padilla is looking for a book publisher for The Julie Project and enjoying her time in Perpignan. "I'm just very flattered that Jean-François thought it worthy of being part of the 25th anniversary festival, especially since it's really a work-in-progress."
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