2015 Photo Contest, Long-Term Projects, 1st prize

Family Love 1993-2014


Darcy Padilla

Agence Vu

28 April, 2011

Jason thinks of Julie, six months after her death. He wishes he could have a place of his own, which he could leave to Elyssa.

The photographer, Darcy Padilla, first met Julie Baird on 28 January 1993. Julie was then 18, and was standing barefoot in the lobby of the Ambassador Hotel in San Francisco, with an eight-day-old child in her arms. She was HIV positive, and had a history of drug abuse. For the next 21 years, Padilla documented Julie’s life, and that of her family, until Julie’s death in 2010. After Julie died, Padilla continued to follow the family’s story.

Julie Baird ran away from home at the age of 14, and was a drug addict by the time she was 15, living in alleys and crack dens. Her earliest memory of her own childhood was of getting drunk with her mother at the age of six, then being sexually abused by her stepfather. When Padilla met her, Julie was living with Jack, the father of her first child, Rachel. It was through Jack that Julie became infected with HIV. Julie left Jack in 1994, because he beat her. For a while, Julie lived alone with Rachel, mostly in hotel rooms, moving twelve times in one year. In 1996, she had another child, Tommy, but the father wanted nothing to do with Julie or the baby. After five months with Rachel and Tommy at a Salvation Army live-in program, Julie moved in with a man she had met there, Paul. He was later sentenced to jail for physically abusing Tommy. After losing custody of Rachel and Tommy, Julie entered a rehab program, hoping to be reunited with them.

While in rehab, Julie, now 24, met Jason Dunn, two years younger than she and also HIV positive. Jason, too, had gone through a troubled childhood, and had run away from his adoptive family at the age of 15, surviving for a while as a male prostitute. Over the next three years, Julie and Jason had three children together: Jordan, Ryan and Jason Jr. All three, like Rachel and Tommy, were eventually taken into care by the state.  Julie and Jason served a nine-month jail sentence for abducting Jordan from hospital soon after the birth, so that he wouldn’t be taken up for adoption.

In 2005, Padilla came across an internet posting by someone looking for Julie. It turned out to be from her biological father, who for three decades had been trying to track her down. Julie and Jason moved to Alaska to be with him, and they had a year together before he died of a heart attack. Later, Padilla also located Jason Jr (now known as Zach) living happily with his adoptive parents, and arranged a meeting with Julie.

In 2008, Julie gave birth to a daughter, Elyssa, but by 2010 life was difficult again. Jason, Julie and Elyssa were living in Alaska, in a house without electricity or running water, more than 12 kilometers from the nearest town, and Julie was very ill. She died, of AIDS-related illnesses, on 27 September 2010, at the age of 36.
After coming across Julie’s story, Jason’s adoptive parents offered to help. Jason moved with Elyssa to live near them, in a furnished apartment they provided in Portland, Oregon, but he could not cope with life as a single parent. Elyssa would often rage at him, blaming him for her mother’s death. Later, Elyssa was taken into care, first by Jason’s adoptive sister, and then by a foster family. Jason was jailed for 17 years in 2013, for sexual abuse of a minor, a charge he denies.

Elyssa continues to live with her new family, and is working on coming to terms with her relationship with Julie and with Jason. In 2014, Padilla received an email from a happily married Rachel, who had come across The Julie Project, and said that knowing her mother’s story had helped her to heal.

“The story of Julie Baird and her family is a complex one: a story of poverty, AIDS, drugs, multiple homes, relationships, births, deaths and reunion. By focusing on one woman’s struggle, I hoped to provide an in-depth look at social issues surrounding disadvantage and HIV, but I also wanted to create a record for Julie’s children of their mother’s story.”—Darcy Padilla

About the photographer

Darcy Padilla

Darcy Padilla is a photojournalist and documentary photographer living in San Francisco, California. Her awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Awar...

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